October 31, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 400

Criticism of the Religious Discourse in Saudi Arabia

October 31, 2007 | By Y. Admon
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 400

Columnists in the Saudi press have recently been criticizing the religious discourse in Saudi Arabia, especially the sermons in the mosques, which, they stated, promote extremism and create a rift among the Muslims. Some columnists have also maintained that, since this discourse is rooted in the past and is not in the spirit of this age, it impedes any attempt at reform and progress in Saudi Arabia. Others even proposed to reform this discourse by introducing modern and more humane interpretations of religious texts, by the careful choosing of the preachers, and by the passing of laws prohibiting incitement from religious pulpits.

The following are excerpts from the articles:

The Saudi Religious Discourse Promotes Extremism

Columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Watan Khaled Al-Ghanami said that the exaggerated preoccupation with the issue of heresy is what encourages terrorism in Saudi Arabia. He wrote: "Unfortunately, the traditional religious discourse inadvertently serves those who are accusing people of heresy.

"When the mosques promulgate religious rulings and announcements that accuse other Islamic schools of thought, such as Sufism or Shi'ism, of heresy – while ignoring the fact that Sufism is an inseparable part of the Saudi identity and that the Shi'ites constitute a large proportion of the population in the eastern and southern areas of Saudi Arabia – this serves those who accuse others of heresy. Even the sentence 'We accuse of heresy only those whom Allah and His Messenger accused of heresy,' which is often repeated in the wider religious circles, is an inseparable part of the mentality of those who repeatedly accuse others of heresy. The debate over who is subject to this decree and who is not is only a small [part of the] controversy...

"Until recently, people [in Saudi Arabia] did not know much about the issue of heresy and did not delve into it, while today everyone is exploring this important subject in depth... Why? Because we speak so much of heresy – in books, research, pamphlets, and sermons preached in mosques... It is an ill that is spreading and [becoming] an all-encompassing evil that will aggravate the problem [of terrorism], and will never lead to its solution..."[1]

The Mosques Incite to Sectarian Rivalry

Criticism of the religious discourse in Saudi Arabia was also voiced by lawyer 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Lahm, in an article titled "The Pulpits of Our Mosques and the Sectarian Import" in the Saudi daily Al-Watan: "Throughout the history of Islam, the mosque have served as a paragon of religious unity by incorporating all ethnic groups and philosophies. In addition, [the mosque] served as a refuge for all Muslims in times of catastrophe or crisis, making no distinctions among them. The pulpits of the mosques were a source of light, propagating religious consciousness, and the sermons were neither subject to ideological limitations nor subordinate to any [particular] philosophical stream...

"However, with the emergence of religious streams with [specific] ideological leanings, and with the propagation of the culture of each separate school of thought and the widening of ethnic gaps between members of the same religion, some mosque pulpits yielded, and [began] attributing sanctity to sectarian notions, thereby violating shari'a guidelines designating the mosque as a unifying institution in Islam. In recent decades, some pulpits have been delivering sermons and lectures offering the listener neither [insights] in matters of his religion nor help [in coping] with the world.

"[The preachers who exploit these pulpits] have devoted themselves to sowing enmity by reviving ethnic rivalry. At times, they use [the pulpits] as a means of communication, and even as a political [tool] that serves their own interests and those of everyone who shares their ideology, inciting against those who oppose them, and divesting the pulpits of the basic role allocated to them by Islam, by the Prophet's Sunna, and the by Caliphate after him.

"It is a serious matter when such conduct occurs in mosques, which are sacred to Muslims of every school of thought, and when mosques are used to stir trouble in a certain region... The problem becomes even more grave when all this is done in the name of Allah and under the banner of defending religion and of devotion to the Prophet's Sunna."[2]

Suitable Preachers Must Be Chosen; Laws Prohibiting Incitement in Mosques Must Be Passed

In a sequel to this article, 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Lahm wrote: "Due to changes in the modern world and to the global spread of modern values and notions, we must reassess the traditional criteria authorizing a preacher to mount the pulpit and preach to the public. Fear of God and the knowledge of religious law are not enough to perform this important function.

"The nature of the preacher's work grants him the power and authority to convey to the audience his opinions and beliefs. Therefore, it is important that the preacher, especially with regard to sensitive congregations, know enough about the changes occurring around him, and has the competence to choose the topics for the sermon in a way that does not compromise the general purpose of the Friday sermon. [This is essential] so that the pulpit does not turn into a tool for sowing strife and inciting to rivalry, which could then be exploited and manipulated…

"In addition, it is imperative that laws be passed to condemn ethnocentric, racial or territorial enmity, [since] abstract arguments and human conscience [alone] cannot be relied upon to deter those who profess sectarianism or racism – attitudes that are unethical and forbidden by the religion, and that may lead to political crises which the region cannot withstand.

"It is important that [such sanctions] be anchored in laws making [the transgressors] accountable, and criminalizing these acts… These laws will serve as a boundary which no man is allowed to cross regardless of rationale, and which can help curb outbreaks of despicable ideological and ethnic extremism. [3]

The Religious Discourse is Rooted in the Past And Prevents Any Attempt at Reform

Columnist Sa'ud Al-Balawi claimed that the religious discourse in Saudi Arabia was rooted exclusively in the past heritage and was not in the spirit of our age – and that it must therefore be reformed. He wrote in the Saudi daily Al-Watan:

"…The Islamic discourse always 'insists' on choosing the past as a starting point and adheres to it throughout… We are currently witnessing the spread of the discourse of incitement, hatred, and ideological and physical violence, which dominates the feelings and the minds [of the people]. The reason for this is that those who fuel and exploit this discourse wish – possibly unaware – for Muslim heritage to be devoid of significant humanistic values and [for it to contain] only violence and extremism…

“We will never succeed in creating a culture with a universal human content while our Islamic discourse includes extremist religious values that reject innovation and corrections that would align it with the difficult historical period in which we live… Since the Islamic discourse is based on the interpretation of the texts, we have no choice but to reexamine this interpretation. Such reexamination means searching for new interpretations relating directly to the text, without addressing marginal issues. Reform is imperative: It is important and essential to our lives; it is not a cultural luxury…"[4]

In another Al-Watan article on the same subject, titled "The Need for Criticizing the Religious Discourse," Al-Balawi claimed that, in light of [general] attempts at reform in Saudi Arabia, the religious discourse must be changed as well, and its flaws corrected by a search for more modern and more humane interpretations. Al-Balawi wrote: "Reasonable criticism is a basis for rectifying any flaw; hence it is important to criticize the Islamic religious discourse over several historical periods, in order to detect all of its main shortcomings. [Indeed,] some religions initially motivated by noble aims have, over time, come to be exploited for specific human interests, which were given a religious mandate and served a particular group [of individuals] to the exclusion of other [groups].

“It is therefore necessary to examine and analyze the religious discourse in order to identify and eliminate faulty reasoning. At the same time, enlightened reasoning must be emphasized... so as to promote humane values. This will help raise the level of Islamic societies, which are immersed in cultural crisis, blaming everything on the external enemy…

"The root of the problem is that the religious discourse claims that it alone can deliver the public from its problems and crises, while in reality it amounts to nothing but pompous language and offers no feasible solutions. In addition, it fails before most of the political and non-political crises that have occurred and are still occurring in Islam.

“Looking to past heritage will not prove useful to societies in the Muslim world, because they resist innovation in the religious discourse… This heritage has become an enemy of modern culture, and of scientific and cultural progress, since the religious discourse sanctifies religious thought rooted exclusively in the past – a mentality that engenders and extols the marginal."

As an example of how the religious discourse sabotages attempts at reform in Saudi Arabia, Al-Balawi discussed women's unemployment: "One of the strangest things about modern religious discourse is that it impedes innovation and the search for practical, modern, and appropriate solutions to our problems. Let us take women's unemployment [in Saudi Arabia].

"It is obvious… that the religious discourse constitutes the main obstacle to [taking any] steps to solve this problem, while offering no alternative solutions that can be implemented in practice. Therefore, this discourse is in itself a real human crisis, since its language helps our society escape the grim reality."[5]

The cartoon below, titled "Searching for Extremists," was published in the Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat.

The pulpit is labeled "The pulpits of extremism."

Source: Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 6, 2007.

*Y. Admon is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[1] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 14, 2007.

[2] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 10, 2007.

[3] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), September 10, 2007

[4] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 1, 2007.

[5] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), June 29, 2006.

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