The Enlightened Sheikhs of the New Saudi Arabia
For decades, the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia succeeded in maintaining a homogenous religious discourse. Saudi intellectuals and academics have repeatedly voiced their concern over the rigidity of the discourse, yet most government-affiliated, and even unaffiliated, scholars refrain from contesting it. The small number of clerics who have done so fell from grace with the establishment and the kingdom’s sizeable conservative population. However, the recent wave of reforms in Saudi Arabia did not bypass the religious establishment. It presented an opportunity for official scholars to support the country’s reform plans and encouraged the emergence of the “Enlightened Sheikhs” trend that has been challenging traditional understandings of religion.
The Enlightened Sheikhs trend started in 2009 when Ahmed al-Ghamdi, former head of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in Mecca, stated that gender segregation has no basis in Islam. Ghamdi’s initial statement was followed by more controversial ones as he questioned rigid practices justified by the establishment such as the face veil and ban on women driving. His views generated widespread criticism among scholars and conservatives, which ultimately led to his dismissal from his position.
The former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Adil al-Kalbani, began contesting religious views at the same time as Ghamdi. He argued that music should not be forbidden, provoking senior scholars who pressured him to change his position. He is an active Twitter user with seven million followers, a number large enough to generate impact. In April, Kalbani appeared at Saudi Arabia’s first ever Baloot tournament, a card game popular in the kingdom despite fatwas forbidding it, and was photographed dealing cards to players. Photos of his appearance went viral, and criticism followed for days.
A preacher who worked for decades at the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Suleiman al-Turaifi, has voiced disapproval of religious scholars who justify and implement rigid interpretations of Islam, such as requiring the face veil for women. Turaifi argues that Islam supports human rights, but Muslims have failed to put this into practice. He blames this on the population’s lack of interest in the essence of Islam suggesting Muslims merely approach religion from a narrow perspective focused on performing duties. He recently said that a moderate understanding of Islam cannot prevail without changing school curricula.
Additionally, Abdulaziz al-Musa, former member of the General Directorate of Guidance and Advice in Mecca, has called for greater participation of women and disagrees with gender segregation. He has been supporting women’s calls for abolishing the guardianship system in a hashtag that has been trending for more than 700 days. He uses social media to challenge views on controversial matters, as he did recently when he tweeted a photo of himself with his sister, who was not wearing a headscarf.
Opponents and critics of these sheikhs often find fault with them, arguing that they are unsuitable to hold religious posts. Ghamdi has been called “a liberal with a beard” whereas Kalbani has been the victim of racism. Musa is often called a school “dropout” and a “Rotana sheikh” (a network of entertainment channels). Turaifi was forced to deactivate his Twitter account for some time due to pressure and criticism from religious scholars and conservatives.
However, change has also affected different religious bodies, institutions, and scholars in the country. The reforms introduced by the government included curbing the powers of the religious police, who frequently patrolled the streets harassing women and shop owners and workers. The government also arrested dozens of people in 2017, including a number of scholars believed to be critics of the reform plans, which created some pressure on others to fall in line. In 2016, a royal decree appointed Suleiman Aba al-Khail and Mohammed al-Issa to the Council of Senior Scholars. The two sheikhs’ views are inconsistent with the rest of the council’s conservative members. Issa was appointed the secretary general of the Muslim World League and has been outspoken on issues related to religious tolerance inside and outside the kingdom. In late 2017, he visited the Vatican in Rome and the Grand Synagogue in Paris. Issa also joined Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his meeting with religious leaders in New York as part of his U.S. tour in March. In May, Issa was invited to The Washington Institute for Near East Policy to talk about a tolerant and moderate Islam with the institute’s director, Robert Satloff.
In December 2017, the archaeological exhibition “Roads of Arabia,” which has been touring internationally for years, finally stopped in Riyadh. The exhibition showcased artifacts from pre-Islamic Arabia, including deities and statues. For decades, scholars stood firm against showcasing statues, seeing them as associated with polytheism and standing contrary to Islamic teachings, which explains their absence from the streets and squares of Saudi cities. Therefore, many Saudis were surprised to see members of the senior scholars roaming the aisles of the National Museum and looking in admiration at statues and artifacts. Among them was Saad al-Shithri, a scholar who criticized the first coed university in 2009 but appears now to be in line with the government’s push for reform.
Senior scholars have been drifting between supporting reforms or staying quiet. In February, Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the Council of Senior Scholars, stated that women do not have to wear abayas (black robes women in Saudi Arabia must wear) to be modest. He argued that most Muslim women around the world do not wear them. Being the land of Islam’s two most holy sites, scholars have justified such strictly enforced practices by suggesting they set Saudi Arabia apart from other Muslim countries. Mutlaq’s declaration not only confirmed that certain practices have no real basis in Islam, but it also acknowledged that Islam practiced in other parts of the world is not inferior to the Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. Acknowledging religious diversity is essential for fostering coexistence, especially among groups that have long been ostracized or viewed with skepticism.
These scholars do not necessarily embody enlightened views in all instances, however. On the contrary, some of them might still believe in traditional religious practices or interpretations, and simply wish to be contrarian. Regardless of how genuine – or persuasive – their efforts are, their public positions are still an important departure insofar as they encourage pluralism of interpretation and open religious discourse, something that was almost impossible a few years ago.
Most important, the conflicting and different opinions presented by these scholars help demolish the aura of “holiness” some of them enjoyed for years. The importance of scholarly interpretation became almost, if not more, important than religious texts themselves. Many Saudis turn to scholars to seek their opinions on religious practices, even if they are clearly stated in holy texts, due to the value they find in their justifications and reasonings. The supposed holiness of religious scholars has elevated them beyond the point where they can be questioned or criticized. Ending this immunity will allow the population to regain trust in their own reasoning, refrain from being fully reliant on scholarly justifications, and bring scholars back to Earth.
Eman Alhussein is a Saudi researcher focusing on gender and sociocultural issues in the Gulf region.