Saudi columnists bolster calls for reform of Muslim religious law

Taliban bans on women’s education and employment by foreign aid organisations operating in Afghanistan are having unintended consequences.

The bans have sparked calls for reform of Muslim religious law in Saudi Arabia, a country that wields moral authority in the Muslim world because of its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

The irony is that the Taliban’s repression of women’s educational, professional, and freedom of movement rights rather than decades of indiscriminate jihadist violence and brutality prompted the calls.

Even so, calls by prominent Saudi opinionmakers for reform of Muslim religious law, long the preserve of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama or Revival of Islamic Scholars, the world’s largest and arguably most moderate Muslim civil society movement, are likely to not only bolster moves to bring Islamic law into the 21st-century but also fuel debate about what constitutes ‘moderate’ Islam.

Potentially, the commentators put on the spot Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other leaders of Muslim-majority states like United Arab Emirates President Mohammed bin Zayed as well as religious establishments, including Al Azhar, the Cairo-based citadel of Islamic learning.

Contrary to popular perceptions, recent wide-ranging Saudi and Emirati reforms involved social change rather than jurisprudential reform.

Similarly, state-aligned Muslim religious figures failed to appropriately anchor in religious jurisprudence their two decades of lofty declarations and charters promoting non-violence, interfaith dialogue, respect, tolerance and minority rights.

In Saudi Arabia, the reforms included lifting the ban on women’s driving, enhancing women’s social and professional rights, developing a Western-style entertainment sector, and cutting the religious police down to size. At the same time, the UAE has emerged as one of the Muslim world’s most socially liberal countries.

Nevertheless, autocratic leaders like Messrs. Bin Salman and Bin Zayed, at the very least, tacitly supported the reticence of state-aligned Muslim clerics and scholars to reform religious jurisprudence.

The Saudi and Emirati leaders recognised the need for social change to fortify their image as moderate Muslim leaders and create conditions that would enable them to diversify their oil-dependent economies but saw religious legal reform as a step too far.

In an interview last April, Mr. Bin Salman implicitly accepted responsibility for applying and/or changing religious law by nominating himself as the leading interpreter of Islamic law.

“In Islamic law, the head of the Islamic establishment is wali al-amr, the ruler,” Mr. Bin Salman asserted. He has adopted that role literally. In contrast to most Muslim rulers, Mr. Bin Salman seldom, if at all, solicits the opinion of Muslim scholars to justify his policies.

“Bin Salman puts religion at the service of his politics while protesting against the use of religion by his opponents,” said Louis Blin, a scholar, in a forthcoming book on the Muslim World League.

In contrast to Nahdlatul Ulama’s humanitarian vision of Islam that advocates reform of religious jurisprudence to deprive militants of the ability to use Islamic law to justify their supremacy and violence and ensure pluralism and an unambiguous embrace of human rights, Messrs. Bin Salman and Bin Zayed advocate social reforms bolstered by autocratic rule.

To that end, Muslim clerics and scholars aligned with the Saudi and Emirati leaders emphasise religious legal texts that demand absolute obedience to the ruler.

The problem for autocrats is that reform of Islamic jurisprudence challenges a key pillar of their survival strategy.

Muslim leaders, parroted by their Western counterparts, have for more than two decades since 9/11 insisted that Islam and Islamic jurisprudence need no reform. Instead, they assert that jihadis misrepresent and misconstrue the faith.

In doing so, autocrats drown out criticism of their brutal, repressive rule that brooks no dissent and potentially provokes violence.

Moreover, casting jihadists as deviants rather than products of problematic tenets of Muslim jurisprudence that justify violence stymies criticism of autocrats’  insistence that autocracy is necessary to combat jihadism and promote moderate Islam.

However, recent columns in largely state-aligned Saudi media suggest that autocrats may have begun to realise that promoting moderate Islam with declarations, largely ceremonial interfaith dialogue, social change, counterterrorism, and fierce opposition to non-violent political Islam is lacking without anchoring in religious jurisprudence.

“The Taliban government’s decision suggests a crisis of thought, the extent to which jurisprudence needs to be revised and developed, and our urgent need for contemporary jurisprudence with modern rules and principles. All religious institutions must work to create contemporary jurisprudence… (that) instill(s) a spirit of tolerance, love of life…, and standards of quality of life,” said Okaz newspaper columnist and Jeddah-based lawyer Osama Al-Yamani.

“The Islamic world is waiting for (Saudi Arabia) to lead it towards contemporary jurisprudence,” Mr. Al-Yamani added.

Sarcastically taking Al-Azhar scholars to task for not excommunicating the Taliban or the Islamic State, Saudi journalist and novelist Abdullah bin Bakhit implicitly called for judicial reform by arguing that jihadist ideology was grounded in Islamic teachings and rulings.

“Every time you ask one of our revered preachers: ‘Why were Islamic countries not at the forefront of nations condemning (the Islamic State), he answers you ‘because we did not implement the correct Islam,’” Mr. Bin Bakhit said.

“Praise be to God, and thanks be to Him…the dream has come close to realisation. After the world lost ISIS (the Islamic State), history gave the honour of applying Sharia to the Taliban to carry out this duty… The Taliban have no excuse for hesitating in applying Sharia law as our honorable preachers wanted it,” Mr. Bin Bakhit went on to say.

Arguing that neither military nor economic pressure would persuade the Taliban to alter their ways, prominent Saudi journalist Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed couched the need for reform in terms of ideological and cultural change.

“The weapon of economic starvation will not work with the Taliban; neither will the Marine Corps or nuclear weapons deter them…. The most powerful weapon capable of changing (the Taliban) is education and spreading the concept of moderate Islam,” Mr. Al-Rashed said.

Eighteen months earlier, Mamdouh AlMuhaini, Mr. Al-Rashed’s colleague from his days at the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television network, proposed top-down Martin Luther-like religious reforms that would be led by Mr. Bin Salman, even though the writer stopped short of identifying the crown prince by name.

“There are dozens, or perhaps thousands, of Luthers of Islam… As such, the question of ‘where is the Luther of Islam’ is wrong. It should instead be: Where is Islam’s Frederick the Great? The King of Prussia, who earned the title of Enlightened Despot, embraced major philosophers in Europe like Kant and Voltaire and gave them the freedom to think and carry out scientific research,” Mr. AlMuhaini said.

“We could also ask where is Islam’s Catherine the Great…? Without the support and protection of these leaders, we would have likely never heard of these intellectuals, nor of Luther before them,” he added.

Although most likely unwittingly, the Saudi columnists echoed Nahdlatul Ulama’s argument that jurisprudential reform is a prerequisite for developing a genuinely moderate Islam.

A soon-to-be-published Nahdlatul Ulama discussion paper asserts that the view that Muslims “should have a default attitude of enmity towards non-Muslims, and that infidels…should be subject to discrimination is well established within turats al-fiqh (the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence).”

The columnists’ call for reform potentially contributes to an environment in which Mr. Bin Salman may feel compelled to embrace the notion of reform of religious jurisprudence in his bid to be recognised as the undisputed leader of the Muslim world.

So far, he has relied on Saudi Arabia’s custodianship of the Muslim holy cities, the impact of his social and economic reforms, his interfaith outreach, and the kingdom’s financial muscle to bolster his claim.

Even so, in religious terms, Mr. Bin Salman would be playing catch-up with Nahdlatul Ulama.

The group set an initial precedent in 2019 when 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama Islamic scholars eliminated the category of the kafir or infidel in their interpretation of Islamic law. Instead, they replaced it with the word muwathinun or citizens.

Last week, Nahdlatul Ulama laid down a gauntlet for Mr. Bin Salman and other Muslim autocrats and authoritarians by calling at an international conference of Islamic scholars for replacing in Islamic law the notion of a caliphate or single universal Muslim state with the concept of the nation-state and anchoring the United Nations and its charter in Islamic jurisprudence.

The group argued that this was the only way to undermine jihadism’s roots in current Islamic law.

Moreover, anchoring the UN charter in religious law would legally oblige non-democratic regimes to respect human rights.

Obsolete and problematic elements of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) are still taught by most orthodox Sunni and Shi‘ite institutions worldwide as authoritative and correct. These teachings…retain considerable religious authority and social legitimacy among Muslims,” said Nahdlatul Ulama chairman Yahya Cholil Staquf.

Driving home the challenge to both jihadists and the Muslim world’s autocrats, Mr. Staquf added: “The fundamentalist/supremacist view of Islam that these obsolete and problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy endorse may be readily harnessed to serve the interests of those with a political agenda.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.