Shahid M Amin
THERE is no doubt that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, also known as MBS, has launched an unprecedented bid to change the face of Saudi Arabia. He wants to promote a ‘moderate’ Islam, which he believes is the ‘real’ Islam. While he wishes to transform Saudi Arabia in the economic and political spheres as well, the thrust of his reform is on religion, where world attention has been focused on the far-reaching changes affecting Saudi women. After years of struggle for the right to drive, women will be driving automobiles in Saudi streets, beginning June 2018. Hijab restrictions on dress have been relaxed and women have been allowed entry in sports stadiums and elsewhere. Cinemas are open, international sports events are taking place and the Mutawwa, the vigilante religious police, has been disbanded. As a result, the street scene in Saudi Arabia today is altogether different. The younger Saudis, constituting majority in the population, are happy. The older, orthodox circles are angry. While much of what is happening is common in the Muslim world, Saudi Arabia has until now followed a very restrictive interpretation of Islam. But it has a unique position as the birthplace of Islam and has the two holiest cities. Millions of Muslims from all over the world visit Saudi Arabia for Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage and are influenced by Saudi attitudes.
Saudi influence is extended in the doctrinal domain through its Wahhabi school of thought. Imam Abdul Wahhab had put forward a fundamentalist version of Islam in the 18th century. It was a rejection of corruptions that had found their way in Muslim societies, such as grave worship, veneration of saints, and many rituals that amounted to ‘bidat’ (heresy) and were seen to compromise the strict monotheism of Islam. Wahhabism was a reform movement in Islam but went to extremes by demolishing graves of the holiest personalities of Islam and removing monuments of high religious and cultural significance. It became intolerant in practice by seeking to enforce its views even on those who did not subscribe to Wahhabism. The religious police was the outcome of this mentality and attempted to force everyone to adhere to its interpretation of Islamic norms.
Salafism is a later outgrowth of Wahhabism: it insists on using violence to secure its objectives. This has produced violent jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS). The shock of 9/11 terrorism changed world history and many fingers have been pointed towards Saudi Arabia for its perceived role in promoting violent Islam. This is a key reason why MBS wants to prove that true Islam is tolerant and its deviation by groups like Al-Qaeda is contrary to Islamic teachings. But the problem is that he has taken on both the orthodox Mullahs and power brokers in royal family at the same time, apart from some foreign policy adventures. He is, therefore, facing a multi-faceted challenge whose final outcome is uncertain. In the subcontinent, the Deobandi school of thought among Sunni Muslims has affinity with Wahhabism. In recent times, it has produced movements like Taliban and several outlawed, violent, religious groups in Pakistan. Their extremist views have led to terrorism and have destabilized Pakistan, resulting in over 70,000 deaths and immense economic losses. They have given Pakistan the image of an intolerant, violent country. What is worse, their activities have defamed Islam. A religion whose very name means peace is being viewed in the West and elsewhere as purveyor of violence.
It can be said that at present there is a struggle going on in Muslim societies for the soul of Islam. It is a debate on what Islam stands for and how Muslims should behave. The division is between a rigid, highly restrictive Islam with a Jihadist mindset, as against a tolerant Islam, willing to coexist with contemporary ideas. Perhaps this schism is not new, as the debate goes back to Kharjites in 7th century who separated from the mainstream by insisting on a literal, intolerant and violent interpretation of Islam. Though the Kharjites soon died out, their mindset did not, and kept reappearing in later centuries in different forms e.g. the Assassins of Hassan-e Sabah in 12th century Persia. At the present time, this mentality has given birth to Al-Qaeda and other such groups.
On the other hand, during Islam’s Golden Age (700-1500 AD) when Muslims led the world in sciences, arts and philosophy, there was a spirit of enquiry and tolerance whose synthesis with Islamic precepts produced some of the world’s greatest advances in learning. In modern times, there have been figures in Islamic societies promoting a tolerant Islam. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was perhaps the most influential among such men. He transformed Muslim society in the subcontinent by encouraging modern learning. He sought to build bridges between Islam and Christianity. Allama Iqbal promoted Ijtihad, the use of rationalism in thinking. Modernist movements were also launched elsewhere in Muslim world, notably by Ataturk in Turkey. At present, some of his excessively secular ideas have been disowned by Erdogan in a kind of revival of orthodox Islam. Islamic Revolution in Iran has produced its version of (Shia) Islam. The struggle for soul of Islam continues. In some ways, it is a struggle between orthodoxy and modernism. Actually, answer lies in Holy Quran itself, which says that Islam is the religion of the middle way and that there is no coercion in religion. The life of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is our guidance. He was a model of tolerance and forgave even his worst enemies. This is the true Islam.
— The writer served as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, France, Nigeria and Libya.