memri
May 4, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1575

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's Far-Reaching Statements On Religion Herald Further Reforms In The Kingdom

May 4, 2021 | By Y. Yehoshua
Saudi Arabia | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1575

To mark the fifth anniversary of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sat down to a lengthy and comprehensive interview with journalist 'Abdallah Al-Mudaifer. Aired on several Saudi channels, the interview touched on political, economic and social issues, and also included far-reaching statements regarding the religious character of the Saudi kingdom and the sources for its legislation. Bin Salman stated that legislation must be based only on explicit stipulations of the Quran and the Prophet's Sunna, while using them as a tool for developing the country and adapting it to the needs of the citizens and to internationally-accepted norms. He rejected the claim that Saudi Arabia is a "Wahabi state," clarifying that it is always possible to apply independent reasoning (ijtihad) in interpreting the shari'a. "If Sheikh Mohammed bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab rose from his grave and saw that we are committed to his text, while locking our minds to ijtihad, thus deifying him and blowing [his significance] out of proportion, he would be the first to oppose this," bin Saman said.  These statements by bin Salman reflect a significant shift in the perception of religion-state relations in the kingdom, which may pave the way to further reforms in addition to those that have already been enacted there in the recent years.[1]


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the interview (Source: Alarabiya.net, April 27, 2021)

Mohammed Bin Salman: We Are Not Wahhabis; It Is Always Possible To Engage In Ijtihad

In the interview bin Salman rejected the claim that Saudi Arabia is a Wahhabi state, i.e., follows the conservative perception of 18th  century Islamic scholar Mohammed 'Abd Al-Wahhab, an associate of the founder of the Saudi kingdom Mohammed bin Sa'ud. He explained that the kingdom's interpretation of Islam is not confined to the directives of Mohammed bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab, and that Saudi Arabia is "not committed" to any specific Islamic school of jurisprudence, but follows the four canonical Sunni Islamic schools: Hanbali, Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanafi. He added: "Being committed to a single school of thought or a single scholar is tantamount to deifying human beings… Allah sent the Quran, and the Prophet implemented it on the ground, and ijtihad is open for all eternity.[2] If Sheikh Mohammed Bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab rose from his grave and saw that we are committed to his text, while locking our minds to ijtihad, thus deifying him and blowing [his significance] out of proportion, he would be the first to oppose this."[3]

This is not the first time bin Salman has rejected the definition of Saudi Arabia as a Wahhabi state. In an April 2, 2018 interview with The Atlantic, he said, "There is no Wahhabism. We don’t believe we have Wahhabism."[4] These statements in fact conform to the narrative that Saudi Arabia has been adopting for years, especially since Al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks on the U.S., 15 if whose perpetrators were from Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials have often denied that the kingdom is dominated by a Wahhabi ideology that fosters extremism, calling this is a false accusation directed at the kingdom by its enemies in an attempt to blacken its reputation. They clarified that Saudi Arabia is a salafi state following the original Islam of the Prophet and his companions, and espouses wasatiyya, namely the middle-road approach in Islam, which the Muslim Brotherhood also claims to endorse. King Salman bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, the crown prince's father, was among those who came out against the Wahhabi label. In 2010, while serving as governor of Riyadh district during the reign of his brother, 'Abdullah bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, he claimed that the term "Wahhabism," which is used derogatively, has nothing to do with the approach of Mohammed bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab, which is a salafi approach. Bin al-Wahhab and his followers, he elaborated, adhered to the original Islam of the Prophet and his companions, while "Wahhabism" is a term that was coined in order to slander them as the inventors of a separate school of religious thought." [5]

After his statement prompted several responses in the Al-Hayat daily, bin Salman published an article in the paper in which he reiterated his claim that there is no Wahhabi school. He wrote: "It is a mistake to claim that the term Wahhabi resembles [the names of] the four schools [of Sunni Islam], because this implies that Sheikh [Mohammed bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab] founded a new school, when in fact he relied in his fatwas and religious opinions on the four [recognized] schools [of Islam]. Even the claim that Wahhabism has become another facet of salafism is wrong, because the correct salafism is the way of life of our righteous ancestors, who were committed to the Quran and the Sunna. Sheikh Mohammed bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab preached a return to this way of life. Contrary to the view that is unfortunately widely held in the modern age, his preaching did not use salafism for political aims… Sheikh Mohammed bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab's preaching is neither a new method nor a new idea, and I again challenge anyone who can find in the sheikh's writings or letters any deviation whatsoever from the holy writings, or from the deeds and actions of our righteous ancestors, to bring them to us. I call on writers and researchers not to be carried away by those who claim that [there is nothing wrong with] using the term Wahhabism [and that this] is only a matter of terminology. These people are forgetting that the real aim of spreading this term is to sully the correct and pure salafism, which has no messages that contradict those presented in the Quran and the directives of the Prophet Mohammed. Furthermore, such sullying is being done by various elements who do not like either [Mohammed bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab's] preaching or what it led to, that is, the establishment of… the Saudi state…"[6]

Mohammed Bin Salman:  We Will Make Laws Based On Explicit Directives Of The Quran And Sunna And In Line With International Norms

Bin Salman did not suffice with renouncing Wahhabism, but also made other pragmatic statements regarding jurisprudence and legislation in Saudi Arabia, saying: "Fatwas are subject to judgement of time and place. For example, if an honorable sheikh issued a fatwa 100 years ago, without knowing whether the world is round or not, and having no knowledge about the continents, about technology, and so on, his fatwa was based on the data and information that were at his disposal, and on his understanding of the Quran and the Sunna. But these things have changed in our current situation. Ultimately, the Quran and the Sunna constitute our source of authority, as I said."

The crown prince added that, in relying on the Sunna, it is best to follow hadiths conveyed by multiple people (hadith mutawatir), which are few but whose authenticity is very much substantiated, and their interpretation is subject to ijtihad, depending on time, place and on the understanding of their content. He added: "Our constitution is the Quran. It was, it is, and it will continue to be for all eternity. In social and personal matters we are only compelled to implement the texts that are explicitly mentioned in the Quran. In other words, I cannot carry out a punishment prescribed by the shari'a unless it is backed by a clear reference in the Quran or the Sunna." He added: "Our role is to make sure that the laws legislated in Saudi Arabia do not violate the Quran and the Sunna… Also, we need to make sure that these laws reinforce our interests and protect the security and interests of the citizens and help in the development and prosperity of the country. With this in mind, we legislate laws that are in line with the international norms. You want tourists to come. Your goal is to have 100 million tourists, in order to create three million jobs.  But if you announce that you invented a new [legal system] that does not follow the internationally-recognized laws, those tourists will not come." [7]

Bin Salman's messages, delivered in Arabic and aired on several Saudi channels, were clearly directed at Saudis, among others. His statement that legislation must be based on explicit Quranic directives and on specific hadiths, and on the interests of the citizens, is apparently meant to prepare the ground for future reforms and legal amendments. They may in fact be aimed at preparing the ground for the approval of a personal status draft law he initiated and presented in February 2021 along with several other draft laws, and which, he said, will take into account international modern legal trends while also complying with the shari'a.[8] Statements by Saudi Justice Minister about these expected reforms indicate that the most significant of them will be a ban on underage marriage, which is prevalent in the kingdom.[9] A reform in this area will be another in a series of social reforms bin Salman has been advancing and implementing under his father's rule, such as the legal amendments permitting women to drive,[10] easing the guardianship requirements for women,[11]  improving the situation of divorced women,[12] among other reforms.

Mohammed Bin Salman: Extremism Holds The Kingdom Back

In the interview bin Salman also addressed the issue of extremism and terrorism in Saudi Arabia, saying that "progress is impossible as long as there is extremist thinking in the kingdom," which thwarts even economic development and growth. He noted that Saudi Arabia itself is a target for extremist organizations and that "anyone who espouses extremist ideology, even if he is not a terrorist, is a criminal who should be prosecuted according to the law."[13]

These statements by the crown prince, as well as the expressions of willingness to engage in dialogue with Iran and coordinate with the U.S., are aimed at signaling to the West and especially to the new U.S. administration that Saudi Arabia is a pragmatic and moderate country, and thus shatter its image as a rigidly religious state that exports terror and violates human rights – a view that has been prevalent in the U.S. media, especially since the assassination of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.[14]

Saudi Media Fully Backs Bin Salman's Position: "The World And Society Have Changed"

Bin Salman's far-reaching statements received full backing in the kingdom. The Saudi Council of Senior Clerics issued a statement praising bin Salman's pronouncements about the importance of the Quran and the Sunna for the kingdom while ignoring what he said about Wahhabism or the kingdom's sources of legislation.[15]  The crown prince's statements on these issues probably displeased some Saudi clerics, including clerics close to the regime, but they are unlikely to denounce them in public, given the iron fist bin Salman has been employing against his critics, including in the religious establishment. 

The Saudi state media published many articles in praise of bin Salman's statements.  Columnist Saleh 'Abdallah Al-Muslim wrote in the daily Al-Madina: "Prince [bin Salman] spoke of deifying people and noted that we are not Wahhabis belonging to [the 'school' of] Mohammed Al-Wahhab… [Indeed],  Sheikh bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab would have surely been displeased with some, or [even] most, of the fatwas we have today, and with most of the deeds of the followers of the destructive extremist ideologies! We are Hanbali, Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanafi, and believe in all the schools that do not contradict the Quran first of all, as well as [the Prophet] Mohammed's Sunna … [Bin Salman] is a statesman and commander of the first order. He spoke confidently and we are proud of his statements and perception and of the fact that [he] restored [the correct understanding of these issues]."[16]  

Liberal writer Wafa Al-Rashid, who has often called for the separation of state and religion,[17]  wrote in her column in the Al-Watan daily: "The world and society have changed. The scientific and industrial revolutions have changed mankind and [global] culture. The modern state has become the only way [for handling the affairs] of individuals and of society. In short, the construction of a unified global civilization compels the Muslims to understand that it is impossible to live based on the rationale of Al-Wala wal-Bara[18] and the division [of the world] into the Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb.[19] Jurisprudence cannot be carried out by a private individual and cannot be confined to a single school, but must be [carried out] in a public framework anchored in state law. It must also be open to all schools, views and religious interpretations, so as to meet the challenges of the times."[20]

Bin Salman's Statements Reminiscent Of Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi's Calls For Religious Revolution

Bin Salman's surprising statements echo the repeated calls of  Egyptian President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi for a "religious revolution" in Egypt and suggest possible coordination between the two leaders. Since he took office, Al-Sisi has been trying to enlist the help of Egyptian clerics, particularly Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, in promoting a religious revolution to combat the extremism pervading the country. He aims to accomplish this by renewing the religious discourse and endorsing an enlightened and modern reading of the Quran and the Sunna. However, Al-Tayyeb, and Al-Azhar under his leadership, have stubbornly refused to cooperate with this initiative of the regime.

At the 2018 annual ceremony marking the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, Al-Sisi said: "I call on our intellectuals and clerics to invest further efforts in their role of [promoting] enlightenment. Let us advance the lofty values that Islam  and the Prophet encourage us [to adopt], which promote labor, building and enlightenment, and use them to confront those who call for extremism and terror. Despite the efforts [already made] by these clerics and intellectuals and their central role in this ideological and cultural campaign, we except [them to make] more efforts in this area, in order to reinterpret our ideological heritage in a realistic and enlightened manner. [Let us] select out of this rich heritage whatever serves us in this era,  suits the spirit of the age and illuminates the path towards a shining future for our homeland, our nation and our coming generations…"[21]

Al-Sisi's calls to reform the religious discourse, and Al-Tayyeb's refusal to heed these calls, have sparked a years-long and public conflict between them. Surprisingly, a few days after bin Salman's interview and his statements about the Islamic sources of legislation, Al-Tayyeb spoke against stagnation in Islamic heritage and in favor of its renewal. Some of his statements were also quoted on his Twitter page.  He said: "Constant renewal ensures that Islam remain a vital and dynamic religion that spreads justice and equality among people. The call to sanctify the jurisprudential heritage and treat it as equal to the Islamic shari'a [itself] leads to stagnation in modern Islamic jurisprudence due to elements that insist on adhering, in a literal manner, to old rulings which were considered innovative in their day."[22]


One of Al-Tayyeb's tweets: "Constant renewal ensures that Islam remain a vital and dynamic religion"

These statements by Al-Tayyeb may indicate a shift in his attitude to the renewal of the Islamic discourse, which he previously opposed. Their appearance at this time may also reflect a connection to Mohammed bin Salman's statements, and perhaps even coordination between Al-Tayyeb and bin Salman. [23]

 

* Y. Yehoshua is Vice President for Research and Director of MEMRI Israel.

 

[1] In the interview bin Salman also delivered other pragmatic messages, for example when he said that Saudi Arabia wants good relations with its neighbor Iran and that it is in agreement with the Biden administration on 90% of issues. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 28, 2021.See MEMRI TV Clip No. 8808, "Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud: We Agree With Biden Administration On 90% Of Issues; China, Russia, India Are Strategic Partners Of Saudi Arabia; We Will Not Accept Interference In Our Internal Affairs," April 27, 2021.

[2] This is opposed to the traditional perception that "the gates of ijtihad are closed," i.e., that the application of independent reasoning in interpreting the shari'a in Sunni Islam ended in the 10th century.

[4] Theatlantic.com, April 2, 2018.

[5] Former Saudi crown prince Naif bin 'Abd Al-'Aziz, who was interior minister under king 'Abdullah, also said that the Saudi kingdom is a Sunni salafi state whose constitution is the Quran and the Prophet's Sunna, while stressing that "Wahhabism is not a school of thought" and that "there is no such thing as Wahhabism" (Al-Madina, Saudi Arabia, September 30, 2011). A similar statement is ascribed to bin Sa'ud himself, the founder and first king  of the Saudi kingdom,  as stated in an Al-Riyadh article headlined "The Founder: We Are Called Wahhabis… [But] These Are False Claims That Have Turned [Wahhabism] into a Fifth School [of Islam]" (Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 24, 2016).

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 17, 2010; Al-Hayat (London), April 28, 2010. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 2953, "Saudi Prince Salman: The Term 'Wahhabi' Was Coined by Saudi Arabia's Enemies," May 13, 2010.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 9, 2021.

[9]  Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), February 9, 2021.

[12] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), February 15, 2018.

[14] A recent U.S. intelligence report assessed that bin Salman ordered to "capture or kill" the pro-MB dissident Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in October 2018 (Edition.cnn,com, February 26, 2021).

[15] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), April 29, 2021.

[16] Al-Madina (Saudi Arabia), May 2, 2021.

[17] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 8918, - Saudi Columnist's Call For Separation Of State And Religion Sparks Public Debate – September 3, 2020.

[18] A Muslim principle enjoining loyalty to Muslims and renouncement of non-Muslims.

[19] Dar al-Islam (the Abode of Islam) refers to countries under Islamic rule, while Dar al-Harb (the Abode of War) refers to countries not under Islamic rule, which must be conquered through armed jihad.

[20] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 2, 2021.

[22] Twitter.com/alimamaltayeb, Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), April 30, 2021.

[23] Bin Salman's statements definitely sparked many reactions in the Egyptian media. Egyptian media host 'Amr Adib, for example, called bin Salman's statements "courageous," and added: "Had we heard these statements several years ago we would not have believed they could be uttered in Saudi society" (Arabic.cnn.com, May 1, 2021).  Media host Ibrahim 'Issa tweeted that bin Salman's claims about following hadiths conveyed through a number of reliable chains of narration and about 'bin 'Abd Al-Wahhab were "a genuine and courageous innovation that will have a significant impact on the reality of the Arabs and of mankind as a whole" (Twitter.com//ibrahim_3eissa, April 28, 2021).   

Share this Report: