Is Religious Reform Coming to Saudi Arabia?
For Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), religious reform has long been a question of when rather than if.
MBS’ potential embrace of religious, not just social and economic, reform could have far-reaching consequences for the role of religion in Saudi Arabia and religious soft power rivalry in the Muslim world.
A recent Washington Institute of Near East Policy public opinion survey suggests that Saudi Arabia, long dominated by an ultra-conservative and supremacist strand of Islam, increasingly favors religious moderation and may be more open to religious reform.
Forty-three percent of those surveyed agreed that Saudis “should listen to those among us who are trying to interpret Islam in a more moderate, tolerant, and modern direction.” When asked the same question four years ago, only 20 percent agreed.
Since coming to office, MBS has pushed reforms that have significantly enhanced women’s rights and opportunities, catered to youth aspirations for greater social freedom, and contributed to economic diversification.
To do so, the crown prince has subjugated the kingdom’s conservative religious establishment and shattered long-held taboos. He has also brutally repressed criticism and dissent.
Yet, for all his bold moves, MBS has stopped short of anchoring his reforms in religious law. Seemingly, the crown prince was concerned that religious reform could be one step too far.
On occasion, he has insisted that describing his reforms as “moderate” Islam would “make terrorists and extremists happy” because they could assert that “we in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries are changing Islam into something new, which is not true.”
The crown prince has used a similar argument to justify a continued ban on non-Muslim houses of worship in the kingdom, home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities. Saudi Arabia is the only Gulf state to forbid non-Muslim worship in public.
Asked about the ban by Joel C. Rosenberg, an American-Israeli evangelical author and activist, MBS said he would not lift it soon. “The reason I’m not going to do it now — anytime soon — is because this would be a gift to Al-Qaeda. They would use this moment to blow up the churches … This would not make life better for the Saudi people,” MBS said.
Embracing religious reform would turbocharge Bin Salman’s claim to leadership of the Muslim world and position him as Islam’s foremost reformer in competition with Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest, most moderate, Indonesia-based Muslim civil society movement.
Unlike Bin Salman and other proponents of a moderate Islam that is socially liberal but politically repressive, such as United Arab Emirates President Mohammed bin Zayed, Nahdlatul Ulama advocates a concept of a socially and politically pluralistic Humanitarian Islam that unambiguously endorses the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and a separation of mosque and state.
The movement has also long campaigned for reform of Islamic jurisprudence, insisting that tenets of the Sharia were outdated and/or obsolete.
Putting its money where its mouth is, Nahdaltul Ulama hosted a gathering in 2019 of 20,000 religious scholars that declared the legal category of the kafir or the infidel obsolete and no longer operable under Islamic law. The scholars replaced the term with the word muwathinun, or citizens, to emphasize that Muslims and non-Muslims were equal before the law.
This year, Nahdaltul Ulama called for replacing the concept of a caliphate in Islamic law with the notion of the nation-state, and introducing the United Nations and its charter as an Islamic legal category.
The reforms would delegitimize jihadist claims that their militancy and quest for a caliphate is grounded in Islamic law. They would also create a base in Sharia for adherence to human rights as defined by the UN charter.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s reforms set a benchmark for MBS. The crown prince’s potential embrace of religious reform would level the playing field regarding social change. However, in doing so, Bin Salman’s move would elevate governance, political pluralism, and human rights to core differentiators in the rivalry for religious soft power in the Muslim world.
Even so, the crown prince would likely take heart from the fact that a whopping 78 percent of those surveyed by The Washington Institute said “it’s a good thing we don’t have mass street protests,” a sharp increase from 48 percent in 2020.
Bin Salman has floated trial balloons several times. He backed away in 2020 when a Saudi news website quietly removed an article asserting that the Koran contained some 2,500 spelling, syntax, and grammar errors.
Months later, an op-ed was published by Kurdish author Jarjis Gulizada on Elaph, a London-based Saudi website operated by Othman Al-Omeir, a reportedly agnostic businessman and journalist with close ties to Bin Salman.
Widely quoted in Arab media, Gulizada’s article called for rewriting Islamic texts, including the Koran, seen by Muslims as the immutable word of God.
Last year, controversial cleric Saleh al-Maghamsi, backed by Turki Aldakhil, the Saudi ambassador to the UAE and former general manager of the state-controlled Al-Arabiya television network, called for the creation of a new school of Islamic legal thought that would replace Sunni Islam’s four traditional schools.
Believed to be close to King Salman, Al-Maghamsi argued that existing legal schools, unlike the Koran, were human constructs that could be revised.
The Council of Senior Scholars, Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body, rejected Al Maghamsi’s proposal out of hand, insisting that existing legal schools could respond to all requirements of modern life and align them with Islamic law.
The Afghan Taliban’s ban on women’s education and employment by foreign aid organizations prompted a third cluster of trial balloons at the end of last year.
“The Taliban government’s decision suggests a crisis of thought, the extent to which jurisprudence needs to be revised and developed… 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,” Al-Yamani added.
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 podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.