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Winds of change in the Arab world: Is Saudi Arabia unveiling the new face of Islam?

Winds of change in the Arab world: Is Saudi Arabia unveiling the new face of Islam?

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إقرأ باللغة العربية:

هل يشهد العالم العربي ظهور "نسخة" جديدة من الإسلام؟


“You have tens of thousands of hadiths, and the massive majority are not proven (to have been spoken by the Prophet) and are being used by many people as the way to justify their viewpoints and what they are doing."

— Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman


For decades, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stood as a bastion of religious conservatism and extremism within the Sunni sphere, influenced by the ideologies of Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, famously known as "Wahhabism".

However, the tides have turned, and we are now witnessing a Saudi Crown Prince who regards Sheikh Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab as nothing more than a political and military figure. According to him, the real issue lay in the fact that his disciples were the only ones capable of reading or writing at the time, so they wrote history from their perspective.

Just like that, Saudi Arabia has undergone a remarkable transformation and completely changed its course. Its ruler asserts very clearly that the majority of prophetic hadiths echoed from pulpits lack authentic verification and should be dismissed. He posits that Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (the founding figure of Saudi thought) was nothing but a military commander whose men capitalized on the widespread illiteracy, creating a narrative from their own point of view.

Just like that, Saudi Arabia has undergone a remarkable transformation and completely changed its course. Its ruler asserts very clearly that the majority of prophetic hadiths echoed from pulpits lack authentic verification and should be dismissed

Does this herald a new version of Islam?

Widely held among Muslims is the notion that Islam remains consistent and has no varying versions, and that Islam is the same wherever you go or stay.

Indeed, this assertion holds true when deliberating the Quranic text and religious obligations.

Nonetheless, the tenets of religion – any religion – encompass a much broader spectrum than obligatory practices and sacred scriptures.

Whether in Riyadh or Cairo, Muslims engage in the same prayers, while the people of Pakistan and Algeria observe fasting during congruous intervals. These practices, deeply ingrained within the faith, are undisputed and retain their essence across diverse cultural contexts.

Muslims in Riyadh pray the same way Muslims in Cairo pray, and people in Pakistan fast during the same time as Muslims in Algeria. These are rituals and obligations that are not disputed or have any differences in the way they are applied.

However, it is in matters of religious commands and prohibitions concerning everyday life that we observe the most notable differences. These distinctions often vary from one period to another and one country to another, resulting in a diverse array of interpretations and even conflicting versions of Islam in various contexts.

For instance, up until a mere two years ago, Saudi Arabia upheld a ban on women driving, citing numerous religious justifications. In contrast, in countries like Egypt or even among neighboring Gulf nations, the act of women driving was not deemed "forbidden." Their clerics deemed it "permissible."

This prompts the question: Is what is forbidden in Saudi Arabia permissible in other regions, or are these different religions all together!?

In reality, Allah did not forbid or permit women from driving. Instead, it was the religious scholars who assigned these classifications based on their own interpretations, which were influenced by their cultural backgrounds. Additionally, the desires of rulers and their political agendas played a significant role in shaping these interpretations over time. As a result, we find ourselves with a spectrum of different "editions" of Islam that are the same in essence and share the same core while manifesting in distinct ways and different appearances.

A prevailing belief among Muslims is that there are no varying "versions" of Islam and that Islam is the same wherever you go or stay.

The petrodollar culture

On August 10, 1932, Abdulaziz Al Saud made a pivotal move by renaming the territory the "Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd and its Dependencies" to the now-familiar "Kingdom of Saudi Arabia". This change followed his successful consolidation of power across the Arabian Peninsula and his victory over Prince Ajlan of the Al Rashid dynasty.

A year after assuming the royal title, Abdulaziz signed an agreement granting Standard Oil Company of California the privilege to explore for oil, marking the inception of Saudi Arabia's journey towards immense wealth.

The unprecedented riches that emerged from beneath Saudi soil were accompanied by a desire to exert influence over the region and assert dominance over other centers, particularly Cairo, which had been grappling with successive economic crises.

As the 1970s unfolded, an astronomical surge in oil prices, coupled with a massive influx of labor migrants into the Kingdom, propelled "Saudi culture" to the forefront of the regional stage.

Consequently, the "Saudi interpretation" of Sunni Islam began to disseminate, gradually invading other Arab nations bit by bit.

It could be argued that one of the most significant defeats experienced by Cairo, a historical regional powerhouse, was the successful infiltration of Saudi culture into the Egyptian streets. This infiltration led to the dominance of Wahhabi/Salafi Islam in the landscape, falsely branding anything else as a deviation from the Prophet's path.

Thus, the simple "beard and mustache" became a religious "beard with no mustache", and the traditional "good morning" was replaced by the more Islamic "Salam Alaykum" (peace be upon you). Wrist watches were only worn on the right, emulating the Prophet's example. Not to mention the hijab that swept through the streets.

As time passed, the Saudi version of Sunni Islam made substantial strides in the cultural realm, sometimes termed as the exertion of "soft power". Cairo ceased to produce Quranic reciters, as the tapes of Saudi Arabia's "Al-Huthaify, Al-Sudais, and Al-Ajmi" inundated its streets. Meanwhile, the voices of Egypt's Abdul Basit Abdul Samad and Al-Minshawi remained confined to Quranic broadcasts, while the voices of Saudi reciters resonated within mosques, shops and cars.

The last milestone witnessed the prohibition of art and the push to enforce the hijab on female artists and actresses, thereby promoting what was dubbed "clean cinema".

Through these tactics, the Saudi version succeeded in asserting its presence and dominance over the Arab streets for over three decades, bolstered by billions of dollars aimed at achieving its objectives.

The current developments in KSA cannot merely be treated as internal affairs. We are facing astonishing and dramatic shifts that fundamentally challenge the established Islamic cultural narrative that once held sway over the minds of millions in the Arab world

Islam in the coming decade

The current developments in Saudi Arabia cannot merely be treated as internal affairs. Instead, we are facing astonishing and dramatic shifts that fundamentally challenge the established Islamic cultural narrative that once held sway over the minds of millions in the Arab world.

Even figures like Imam of the Great Mosque of Mecca, Adil Al-Kalbani, personally appearing in a promotional campaign for an entertainment event in Riyadh, exemplify a trend that transcends its immediate implications. Coupled with this is the Kingdom's newfound openness, represented by figures like Turki Al-Sheikh, embracing art, music concerts, and the like.

Just like that, art has transitioned from being forbidden to permissible, and what was previously prohibited has now become accessible, and gender mixing in public spaces, once frowned upon, is now accepted.

In essence, the "Islamic version" propagated by the Kingdom over the past four decades is currently waning under the influence of Mohammed bin Salman. This shift opens the door for a new interpretation of Islam in the kingdom, one that predominantly emphasizes permissibility, in contrast to the older version that was dominated by prohibitions.

Embracing this new version may not come easily to the relatively older generations deeply steeped in Salafi ideologies. Convincing those who have been fed and brought up on specific ideas throughout their lives that this is not the only face to Islam, and that there are alternative dimensions to the religion, will undoubtedly prove challenging.

Yet, it is certain that as Saudi Arabia withdraws its financial support from the channels nurturing these ideas, the old version will quietly recede and pave the way for the new, less rigid version. Its effects will be seen on the generations to come, those who have not experienced the influence of Salafi scholars Al-Heweny and Yacoub, nor witnessed the destruction of religious tombs and shrines.



* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22

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