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March 15, 2023 10:10 am
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As Ramadan Approaches, Debates About Islamic Reform Continue

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avatar by James M. Dorsey

Opinion

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US President Joe Biden meet at Al Salman Palace upon his arrival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. Bandar. Photo: Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

Reform of Islamic jurisprudence was the elephant in the room when two prominent Saudi clerics clashed publicly about whether apostasy was punishable with death under Islamic law.

The debate’s timing on a Saudi state-controlled, artsy entertainment channel — Rotana Khalijiya — suggested as much. The debate aired days before the kingdom’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs severely restricted celebrating Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting which begins on March 22.

Debates like these feed into a competition between Saudi Arabia and various other players for religious soft power in the Muslim world. The rivalry pits Indonesian reformists against state-aligned Saudi and Emirati propagators of a socially liberal but autocratic interpretation of Islam.

Saudi and Emirati-backed Islamic scholars reject jurisprudential reform and reserve the right of legal interpretation for the ruler and his clerical surrogates. Last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) went as far as nominating himself as the primary interpreter of Islamic law. He asserted in an interview with The Atlantic that “in Islamic law, the head of the Islamic establishment is wali al-amr, the ruler.”

MBS meant that literally. The crown prince, in contrast to many Muslim rulers, seldom, if at all, solicits the opinion of Muslim scholars to legitimize his policies.

“Bin Salman puts religion at the service of his politics while protesting against the use of religion by his opponents,” said scholar and author of a book on the “Muslim World League,” Louis Blin. The League is MBS’ principal vehicle for propagating his autocratic version of a moderate form of Islam.

To be sure, MBS and United Arab Emirates President Mohammed bin Zayed have enacted far-reaching social reforms that have enhanced women’s social rights and professional opportunities. The two men have also eased restrictions on gender interaction and embraced Western-style entertainment. However, they anchored these changes in civil law and ignored the need to synchronize religious jurisprudence.

The two men’s primary concern is not morals, but securing the survival of their autocratic regimes. To do so, they need to cater to youth aspirations, diversify their oil export-dependent economies, ease social restrictions to compete for foreign talent, and project an image of tolerance. Their reforms serve that purpose but go no further.

Exhibit A is Saudi Arabia’s first-ever personal status law. A recent Amnesty International analysis of the law suggests that it remains rooted in orthodox Islamic jurisprudence. The law codifies problematic practices inherent in the kingdom’s male guardianship system. It entrenches a system of gender-based discrimination in most aspects of family life, including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, even though it also sets a minimum age for marriage.

Under the law, women are required to obtain the consent of their male legal guardian to get married. The law further obliges a wife to “obey” her husband. It conditions her right to financial support, such as food and accommodation, on her “submit(ting) herself” to her husband.

Moreover, men can initiate divorce without conditions, while women face legal, financial, and practical barriers. In divorce, a mother does not have equal rights to her children; the father is granted guardianship as a matter of principle. Finally, the law institutionalizes discrimination between men and women in inheritance, giving men a much larger share of assets than their female counterparts.

Similarly, recently announced restrictions on the public celebration of Ramadan were designed to shift the core of Saudi identity from religion to nationalism. They also intended to strengthen government surveillance and control. With the restrictions, MBS apparently wanted to be seen as walking in the footsteps of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the 20th-century visionary who carved secular Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and abolished the caliphate.

The new rules curtail the time allotted to evening prayers, forbid worshipers to bring their children to the mosque, ban the filming and broadcasting of prayers, curb donations for organizing the breaking of the fast by worshipers, and oblige mosque officials to supervise the fast-breaking in courtyards rather than inside the mosque. The measures resemble restrictions the government tried to impose last year. However, online uproar forced the government to retract a ban on broadcasting uninterrupted live Ramadan footage from the two mosques viewed by Muslims worldwide.

Looking for a silver lining in the restrictions, Indian Muslim thinker and Secretary-General of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought A. Faizur Rahman, said in a telephone interview that MBS likely sees the reported measures as a way to counter the ritualization of Islam. That also is the message in the crown prince’s plan to build a futuristic downtown Riyadh with the Mukaab, a 400-metre-high square virtual reality cube, at its center.

Critics have denounced the plan because the envisioned cube resembles the Kaaba, a black cuboid-shaped stone structure at the center of Mecca’s grand mosque. Rahman described the Ramadan restrictions as “a bad imitation of Ataturk. It’s an expression of power. It’s saying I am the ruler.”

Some analysts believe that MBS, like Ataturk in the past, wants to remove religion from the public square and relegate it to the private sphere. In contrast to the waning years of empire and Turkey’s early republican period, MBS has opted for achieving his goal by decree with no semblance of public debate. To be sure, Ataturk’s reforms, including introducing French-style militant secularism, were unpopular and enacted by a one-party state. Nevertheless, they followed a fierce battle of ideas in rival publications in the last 15 years of the empire about the role and the nature of Islam that was fresh in people’s minds.

Where Bin Salman opts for a top down-dictate that focuses on form rather than content, his foremost ideological rival focuses on a bottom-up approach that embraces jurisprudential reform in pursuit of a moderate Islam that is pluralistic, inclusive, and unambiguously endorses the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Last month, Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest and most moderate civil society movement, called in a document composed in the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence to abolish the caliphate and replace it with the notion of the nation-state.

The document was issued after consultations in the second half of 2022 in some 230 religious seminaries across the Indonesian archipelago in which the proposition of jurisprudential reform was debated. In 2019, 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued a fatwa — or religious opinion — that erased the concept of the kafir or infidel in Islamic jurisprudence and replaced it with the notion of a citizen.

While apostasy, like blasphemy, is on the bucket list of Nahdlatul Ulama’s jurisprudential reforms, it was unusual for Saudi clerics to clash on television over interpretations of Islamic law. The debate pitted Saudi Islamic scholar Abd Al-Rahman Abd Al-Karim, a proponent of the classical Islamic legal proposition of the death penalty for apostasy, against Ahmad al Ghamdi, the former head of the Mecca chapter of the Authority for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. In 2016, MBS clipped the wings of the Authority, a once-feared religious police force, by banning it from “pursuing, questioning, asking for identification, arresting and detaining anyone suspected of a crime.”

Since leaving the Authority, Al-Ghamdi has emerged as a religious liberal advocating the very things on which his police unit once cracked down. These include mixing genders, listening to music, and the forced closure of shops and businesses during prayer time. In the debate with Al-Karim, Al-Ghamdi asserted, “People who do not adhere to the Islamic faith are free to do so. They must not be coerced. The same is true for people who converted to Islam and then became apostates. There are unambiguous verses in the Quran regarding their freedom to do so. Allah said [in the Quran], ‘there is no coercion in religion.’”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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