October 12, 2011 Special Dispatch No. 4206

In Saudi Arabia, Publication of Controversial Article about Concept of Divinity Leads to Arrest of Its Author and Daily's Editor

October 12, 2011
Saudi Arabia | Special Dispatch No. 4206

On September 5, 2011, Saudi columnist 'Abd Al-'Aziz 'Ali Al-Suweid published in the daily Al-Madina a highly controversial philosophical-theological article, which claimed that mankind must abandon the traditional and popular perception of the divine and adopt a "secular, universal, scientific, and humanistic" perception of this concept. He explained that the only way to gain knowledge of God is through scientific investigation of His "ways and laws," as they are reflected in the cosmos and in human nature. He added that the ways of God are open to endless interpretations, none of them more correct than any other, and that each individual is free to choose his beliefs and opinions according to his own understanding.

Senior Saudi Sheikh 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barak responded to the article on his Facebook page on September 13, describing it as "erring" and containing heretical ideas. He also called it atheistic, because, he said, it perceives the divine in a non-religious way, different from the perception familiar to the Muslims. He urged Al-Suweid and the editor of Al-Madina to publish an apology, saying that if they did not, they should be prosecuted along with Saudi Arabia's Information minister, Dr. 'Abd Al-'Aziz Khoja.[1]

After several websites[2] reported that he had accused Al-Suweid of heresy, Al-Barak clarified, on September 19, that he had not meant to commit takfir against Al-Suweid (i.e., to proclaim him an apostate) but only to describe some of his ideas as heretical and to warn him against this. "According to the scholars of Islamic law," he explained, "there is a difference between passing judgment upon a statement and passing judgment upon the person who made it... That said, there is nothing to keep [us] from pointing out that the person who made the statements may be in danger of falling into heresy, in order to warn him of the danger in his words."[3]

Also on September 19, Al-Suweid wrote on Al-Madina that some readers had apparently misunderstood the intention of his article. The purpose of the article, he said, had been to stress that "God is above the various names, attributes, and actions that have been ascribed to Him by the erring sects, or by the texts of various religions that have distorted the Word of God and by the texts of the non-monotheistic religions."[4]

On September 20, 2011, the Saudi daily Sabq reported that, on the orders of the Saudi king, Al -Suweid had been arrested for the publication of his September 5 article, along with Al-Madina's editor-in-chief, Dr. Fahd Al-'Aqran, and that the latter had been replaced as editor by 'Abdallah Al-'Umri. According to the report, the king has instructed to investigate the two and to bring charges against them before the Information Ministry Legal Committee. The report explained that the article had enraged the king because it contravened the tenets of Islam, an offense that cannot be justified even on the grounds of free speech.[5] It should be noted that the article, as well as Al-Suweid's September 19 clarification, have been removed from Al-Madina's website.

The following are excerpts from the article:

"In Order to Free Itself from Slavery and... Tyranny, Humanity Must Dissociate Itself from the Concept of the Divine in Its Traditional, Popular, and Folkloric Sense"

"In order to free itself of slavery and of social and political tyranny, humanity must dissociate itself from the concept of the divine in its traditional, popular, and folkloric sense, and embrace the concept of the divine in its secular, universal, scientific, and humanistic sense. This, because the laws of the universe and the ways and laws of God, [as reflected in] nature, human life, and society, which are being discovered and put to use through empirical science, are the sphere where one makes contact, [and forms] a relationship and a spiritual [connection] with God, the creator of man and the maker of this universe. This [sphere] is the domain of worship and of pure monotheistic faith in God.

"This intellectual, secular effort addresses people with the moral purpose of enlightenment rather than destruction; [with the purpose of] dissociating from [certain] concepts rather than dissociating from Allah's signs as revealed in the book of the universe; [and with the purpose of] severing ties with the culture of controversial texts.

"Neither the religious man nor the enlightened man exists in a state of spiritual desolation. Rather, both achieve a state of spiritual satisfaction, though of a totally different kind. Our perception of the spiritual does not necessarily resemble the religious [perception of it], and even when it does, on a limited cognitive level, we do not consider [our perception] exclusive, nor do we view it as perfect or sacred and infallible. This, because ideas have a life that goes beyond their ostensibly fixed form in a given system or philosophy. They are open to other, wider possibilities on other cognitive levels and in [other] historical contexts. Also, spirituality is not synonymous with the belief in the hereafter. Sometimes it converges on [the domain of] ethics, and sometimes on aesthetics. A 'spiritual' experience that does not cause one's blood to boil with fury over the suffering of man, and does not prompt one to make inhuman efforts to ensure the triumph of justice over injustice, and does not prompt one to honor knowledge – any knowledge – is a useless experience. In fact, it is most likely an illusory experience."

"God's Laws, or Ways... Do Not Distinguish between Muslim and Unbeliever"

"I believe that the time has come to make a distinction between the ever-changing religious perception of God and the rational scientific perception of God. God's laws, or ways, which He established throughout the universe, are permanent, continuous, impartial, and objective. They pander [to no-one] and do not take sides, they are neither 'believers' nor 'infidels.' They are neither heretical nor missionary. They permeate physical and human space. If you endorse them and relate to them you fulfill their purpose. Greatness and humility, property, health and illness, livelihood, wealth and poverty, justice and injustice, security and stability – all are impartial laws and ways that God created and established for all of mankind, in accordance with each man's age and social environment. God made the universe and then left it to continue and function according to [these] laws, ways, and rules, which do not distinguish between Muslim and unbeliever, or between obedient and disobedient. Whoever understands how to relate to [these laws] realizes their logic, because discovering the laws of life (God's ways) in all their detail, and dealing with them, means appreciating and sanctifying these laws (God's ways), and this, in turn, means admiring God and his oneness.

"The ideology and culture of understanding God's ways do not tolerate the [dichotomous] approach of 'for or against.' Rather, they are a wide space that is open to various possibilities, probabilities and options, all of which are equal in value and legitimacy, since they are the choices of free individuals who differ in every way [but] are similar in their human and civil [rights]. All inclinations, preferences, and beliefs of individuals are legitimate and equally valid, and nobody has the right to classify them as right or wrong, good or bad, belief or heresy, patriotic or traitorous. All cultural and creedal choices that strive to grasp the laws of the human soul, of society and of the wide horizons [of the universe], in order to investigate the ways of God, [i.e.,] His laws concerning human societies – are the preferences of believers as servants of God."

"The Secular Understanding of... the Divine Comes Out Against the Dogmatic Understanding, Which Considers Itself Infallible"

"The secular understanding of the concept of the divine comes out against the dogmatic understanding [of this concept], which considers itself infallible and impossible to disprove. This [secular] understanding can take part in creating different, new, religious images, which do not separate man from his creator but rather bring him back to [his creator] from a new perspective rooted in the modern secular consciousness. This consciousness is open to the spiritual experience that existed in prophetic times, when relationship [with the divine] meant opening up to the divine without any predetermination or coercion, but rather by free choice representing individual moral responsibility in its most radiant manifestations. [This moral responsibility] expresses new universal spirituality pointing toward what was expressed by Munsif Ibn 'Abd Al-Jalil about the possibility of salvation through morality outside religious symbols, and [about] the emergence of truth outside the religious establishment – [an approach] that indicates awareness of progressing beyond religious law.

"The traditional religious perception of God outlined a concept which is closer to the human quality of the deity than to [His] quality as an absolute deity that is far beyond human conception. For example, He is imagined as a material being named Allah. This perception results from changing [circumstances] of history and geography, but God is totally different from this image [of Him]. So the problem lies in the perception, not in the belief. In order to know God we should acquaint ourselves with His laws, which permeate the universe and the [human] soul... Humans cannot form an image of the essence of God, because all human perceptions are based on the limited [impressions] that the human mind can form of its environment. Since there is nothing similar to God, human perception is unable to form an image of Him... [Hence], it must refrain from trying to [directly] imagine his modes of action. [Man's] only option is to observe the effects of these actions on the world around him (i.e., [Gods] ways and laws). This is man's sphere of spirituality and worship, [his way of] understanding God and relating to Him."


[1], September 13, 2011.

[3], September 19, 2011.

[4] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), September 19, 2011.

[5] Sabq (Saudi Arabia), September 20, 2011.

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