Moderate Islam in King Salman’s era

SOURCE:Al Arabiya

4 March 2018

Mohammed Al Shaikh

Saudi King Salman is well aware of the machinations of Brotherhood, which exploits our honorable religion to gain political power even if it undermines the kingdom’s security and stability. After becoming King, one of his first decisions was to decisively curb their activities. King Salman had closely dealt with them when he was governor of Riyadh. We knew for a fact that these Brotherhood affiliates were few in number. However, they had a loud voice because they were organized, or to be more accurate, because they received directions from their foreign patrons even if it was at the expense of the kingdom’s independence and sovereignty.


Small minority of extremists

The Brotherhood’s unity, particularly in the media, sought to make people think they were many in number and that they had a wide following among a large cross-section of people across the kingdom. The truth is that the vast majority of Saudi people are moderate Muslims, and they do not create nuisance. This was evident when they welcomed the state’s decisions to modernize and catch up with the world. A large number of citizens have attended various events organized by the entertainment authorities. This proves, beyond the shadow of doubt, about what we always believed about the influence of Islamists and how “they are the most vocal but very few in number.”


Extremists in the country received directions from their foreign patrons even if it was at the expense of the kingdom’s independence and sovereignty.


Mohammed Al Shaikh

Man by nature hates isolation which the Prophet (peace be upon him) warned against as is evident from his own life. However, there are people who find in extremism what they cannot find in tolerance and openness and choose to isolate themselves and ignore the famous saying: “Live for your worldly life as if you are living forever, and work for your Hereafter as if you are dying tomorrow.” This happens everywhere and at all times and it’s not exclusive to one religion. It is most probably due to psychological reasons or narrow-mindedness. Moderate Muslims must balance between the requirements of life and religion. They must contribute to everything that enhances security, welfare and stability without having religion overshadow the worldly.


King Salman’s reign of transformation

We are witnessing a clear manifestation of this balance, which the religion of Islam has urged and which early Muslims practiced during the prosperous phase of the Islamic civilization. This balance has in fact been the most important factor that helped Islam reach all the corners of the world.


Observers around the world have wondered why extremist preachers, who promote isolation, have gone silent. I think the most important reason is because extremism is simply not the basis of Islam, but the opposite is true. Extremists and Islamists are the ones who distort Islam and have projected it as an intolerant religion when instead Islam calls for “for arguing in a way that is best” and not by resorting to violence, like extremists who promote political Islam do.


This blessed era of King Salman’s rule marks a real transformation in our country to resolutely return to moderate Islam in all fields of life. I have no doubt that history will talk a lot about this impressive transformation.

Council of Senior Scholars (Saudi Arabia)


Mar 1, 2018

The Council of Senior Scholars (Majlis Hay’at Kibar al-‘Ulama – مجلس هيئة كبار العلماء, also known as the Senior Council of Ulema) is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia‘s highest religious body, and advises the king on religious matters.[1][2] [3]The council is appointed by the king, with salaries paid by the government. As of 2009, the council was made up of 21 members.[2] Saudi King Fahd has continued the precedent set by earlier kings of meeting weekly with Council members who resided in the capital, Riyadh.[4] As of 2010, Saudi King Abdullah decreed that only members of the Council and a few other clerics could issue fatwa in Saudi Arabia.[2] (List of members of the council as of June 2013)


Prior to 1971, the council met informally, headed by the Grand Mufti.[1] (As of 2009, the Grand Mufti—Sheikh Abdul-Aziz ibn Abdullah Al Shaykh—is still the head of the council.) On 29 August 1972 King Faisal ibn Abd al-Aziz issued a royal decree establishing the Council.[5]

Until 2009, the body was restricted to members of the Hanbali madhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence). On 14 February of that year King Abdullah expanded the Committee to include scholars from the other three Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Shafi’i, Hanafi and Maliki).[2] Despite the newfound diversity, observers note that the scholars continue to hold very similar positions in regard to ʿAqīdah (creed).[2]


The Senior Council assists in reviewing requests for fatwas prepared by the four (or five) member Permanent Committee for Islamic Research and Issuing Fatwas whose membership is drawn from the Senior Council. The members of the Senior Council are appointed to four year terms.[6] In 2010, Saudi King Abdullah decreed that only officially approved religious scholars would be allowed to issue fatwas in Saudi Arabia, primarily the members the Council of Senior Scholars.[2] At least one Islamic fatwa website Islam-QA run by Saudi Islamic scholar Muhammad Al-Munajid was banned in Saudi Arabia as a result.[2][7]

The Senior Council and the Permanent Committee issue fatwas, the imams communicate them, and the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice enforces their rulings.[1]


While the ulema of Saudi Arabia and the Council are sometimes used interchangeably (for example here), in fact, of the estimated 7,000 to 10,000 people that make up the ulama and their families, only thirty to forty of the most senior scholars “exercised substantive political influence”.[4]


According to Simon Henderson, the council must give a fatwa of approval before a new king is crowned.[8] According to the Columbia World Dictionary of Islamism, the council serves in theory to guide the Saudi king and to verify his “fidelity” to the Islamic principle of “absolute obedience” to Islamic law upon which “the absolute authority of the sovereign” over the Saudi population rests.[9] However, in practice the council “virtually never expresses opposition to any proposal from the royal family.”.[9]

Support for monarchy[edit]

The Council is often used to provide religious support for government edicts. For example, in 2011 it issued a fatwa ruling against protest demonstrations calling them “deviant intellectual and partisan connections”. Demonstrations “and anything that leads to disunity and fragmentation of the nation” were not allowed under Sharia (Islamic law). Reform could only come from giving advice and counsel, “and not by issuing and collecting signatures on intimidating and incendiary statements that violate what God the most High has commanded” (sura 4, aya 83, of the Koran were cited in support).[10]

It is rarely in opposition to government policy, and when it does disagree, the Council generally expresses it by silence.[2] Observers differ as to how much influence the Council has. Many believe the government generally consults the Council prior to issuing legislation, while other believe that “more often than not”, the government does “as it likes and then seeks approval after the fact”.[2] According to Christopher Boucek,[11] the influence of the Council and ulema in general varies according to how “secure” the royal family feels. Great levels of royal confidence lead to less disregard shown to, and greater control over the religious establishment.[2] Unlike other ulema, Saudi scholars do not have income-generating lands or endowments to fund them and are dependent on government salaries.[1]

In 1992 King Fahd pressured seven members of the Senior Ulema into retirement after they failed to sign a letter condemning conservative attacks on the al-Saud family.[1] In 2009, another member—Sheikh Saad bin Nasser al-Shithri—was pressured to resign after he opposed gender mixing at the new King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the first co-ed university in the Kingdom.[12]

Saudi cleric says women need not wear abaya robe in public

SOURCE: The Guardian

Time: 11 February, 2018


Saudi women should not have to wear the loose-fitting abaya robe to shroud their bodies in public, a senior cleric said, in the latest sign of a far-reaching liberalisation drive.

“More than 90% of pious Muslim women in the Muslim world do not wear abayas,” said Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a member of the council of senior scholars – the kingdom’s highest religious body.

“So we should not force people to wear abayas,” he told a television programme broadcast on Friday.

Saudi Arabia, which has some of the world’s tightest restrictions on women, requires them to wear the garment by law.

The government has not said whether it will change the law, but this is the first such comment from a senior religious figure.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recently introduced a series of reforms in favour of women as the kingdom prepares for a post-oil era.

Saudi Arabia last month allowed women to enter a football stadium for the first time to watch a game.

The move came four months after the kingdom announced an end to a long-standing ban on women driving – a major change to the country’s ultra-conservative social order.

But women still face a number of restrictions.

Under Saudi Arabia’s existing guardianship system, a male family member – normally the father, husband or brother – must grant permission for a woman’s study, travel and a host of other activities.

Sheikh Mutlaq’s comment sparked a host of reactions on social media, including from other clerics who backed his statement.

One Saudi Twitter user commented: “Chastity and morality should not be tied to a piece of cloth.”


Saudi religious police’s decline under spotlight

SOURCE:Straits Times

FEB 10, 2018,

Street dance video highlights rift between conservatives and youth

RIYADH • A veiled Saudi woman and an unrelated man jig and twirl on a busy street, stirring a furious debate about the waning influence of the once-feared religious police, notorious for enforcing sex segregation.

For decades the “mutawa”, as the religious police are known, wielded unbridled powers as arbiters of morality, patrolling the streets and malls to snare women wearing bright nail polish and chastise men seeking contact with the opposite sex.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has launched a series of reforms, including gradually diminishing the mutawa’s powers to arrest. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has also further cut back the political role of hardline clerics in a historic reordering of the Saudi state.

The video of the street dance – no minor infraction in a society steeped in conservatism – has roiled public opinion as it surfaced this week, prompting calls for the couple to be arrested. The authorities pledged swift action amid raging commentary on social media, which laid bare the resentment in conservative quarters over the mutawa’s diminishing presence and the uncertainty over their future role.

The mutawa, who fall under a government agency known as the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Their declining presence has also been met with relief from many of the country’s young. Tearing down partitions dividing the genders, many restaurants in Riyadh are now seen humming with music and mixed-gender crowds, a scene unimaginable until two years ago.

In recent weeks, columnists in Saudi newspapers such as the prominent pro-government Okaz have even openly called for the mutawa to be abolished, arguing that they are an unnecessary financial burden.

Their decline comes as 32-year-old Prince Mohammed – himself a millennial in a country where half the population is under 25 – pursues a liberalisation drive that has upended years of conservative tradition. He has lifted bans on women driving and cinemas, as well as introduced an array of entertainment and sporting options, sidelining the kingdom’s arch-conservatives, once the traditional backers of the royal family. Opposition to the Prince’s reforms has been muted – at least publicly – after his crackdown on dissent, including arrests of prominent clerics with millions of followers on social media.

“The influence of conservative clerics has always been exaggerated,” said Saudi researcher Hesham Alghannam of Britain’s University of Exeter. “Girls’ sports, cinemas, concerts or even the disbanding of religious police are not things they can prevent from happening. The kingdom is able to push through such reforms without expecting a backlash.”

Still, there is a delicate balance between social liberalisation and alienating conservatives, and the authorities appear careful not to antagonise religious sensitivities.

“There is a difference between moderate Islam and no Islam at all,” said a Riyadh-based businessman, requesting anonymity as he did not want to be seen as criticising the Prince. “Aside from upholding public morals, the mutawa also went after drug dealers and criminals harassing the public.”

Saudi cleric banned for saying women’s brains ‘a quarter the size’ of men’s

SOURCE: The Guardian

Time: 23 September 2017

A Saudi cleric who said women should not drive because their brains shrink to a quarter the size of a man’s when they go shopping has been banned from preaching.

Saad al-Hijri, head of fatwas (legal opinions) in Saudi Arabia’s Assir governorate, was suspended from all religious activity after advising against allowing women to drive in a speech that contained comments “diminishing human value”, a spokesman for the governor of Asir province said.

Women remain banned from driving in Saudi Arabia despite ambitious government targets to increase their public role, especially in the workforce.

The ultra-conservative kingdom has some of the world’s tightest restrictions for women. They are also bound by law to wear long robes and a headscarf and require the consent of a male guardian for most legal actions, including study, travel and other activities.

In a video this week, Hijri asked what the traffic department would do it if it discovered a man with only half a brain. “Would it give him a licence or not? It would not. So how can it give it to a woman when she has only half?” he said.

“If she goes to the market she loses another half. What is left? A quarter … We demand the traffic department check because she is not suitable to drive and she has only a quarter.”

The comments sparked outrage on social media, which is hugely popular in the kingdom.

Twitter users shared the video, many criticising it and making jokes about his remarks, under the Arabic hashtag “Al-Hijri-women-quarter-brain”.

The hashtag was used 119,000 times in just 24 hours.

Some users posted pictures of Saudi female scientists and academics in response and questioned Hijri’s own intellectual capacities.

But there were many others who supported the cleric, and the hashtag “Al-Hijri is with the woman, not against her” was used on 20,000 tweets in the same time period.

Hijri’s suspension, ordered by the provincial governor, was aimed at preventing the spread of views that spark controversy and do not serve the national interest, the provincial spokesman said.

The Saudi government’s modernising reforms, backed by Saudi Arabia’s business class, have sparked tensions with influential clerics upon whose support the ruling family relies.

Some clerics have millions of followers on social media.


Proposal to dilute Saudi religious police powers put to Shura

SOURCE:Gulf News

September 20, 2017

Shura member says there is much overlap in the tasks of the religious police and the Islamic Affairs Ministry

Manama: Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council will next week debate a proposal to integrate the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice in the Ministry of Islamic Affairs.

“We successfully convinced the competent side within the Shura Council to take up the proposal and submit it for a general debate after the concerned Shura committee turned it down,” Shura member Atta Al Sabiti said.

“We believe that the best option is to place the commission under the ministry because its tasks are very close and similar to what departments within the ministry are doing,” he said, quoted by Saudi daily Okaz on Tuesday.

The move would become official after the Shura Council approves it and King Salman Bin Abdul Aziz endorses it, he added.

Al Sabiti said the proposal, in case it is approved, would also be beneficial for the state budget since it would avoid double work and consequently reduce expenses.

The Commission, often described as the morals police, used to be among the most powerful institutions in Saudi Arabia and enjoyed immense power.

However, reports that the commission failed to deal with some situations professionally repeatedly prompted harsh criticism on social media. In April, the Saudi cabinet clipped its powers and limited its prerogatives, including the right to arrest people or to chase them in vehicles.

The Shura Council is made up of 150 members, including 30 women, who advice on the policy to be taken by Saudi Arabia.


New Saudi policy will ensure clerics fall in line


Time: September 13, 2017

On Sunday, Saudi authorities arrested an unspecified number of religious figures in a move that may very well signal a policy turn. While no reasons were publicly given as to why they were arrested, the authorities announced two separate operations on the same day. One case involved an ISIL plot, while the other, presumably related to the arrests of the clerics, involved individuals with “foreign intelligence” links. At least three notable clerics were apprehended, although unconfirmed reports suggest the number could be as high as 20.

The arrests, made by the recently established state security directorate, appear to be sending a message to vocal clerics that their time is up. It is a signal that authorities may be drawing new lines and changing their rules of engagement when it comes to dealing with certain types of Islamist-leaning figures.


As pro-government Saudis see it, those figures have learned how to tiptoe over red lines to express adversarial religious and political positions without the risk of punishment. Authorities want to put an end to the situation.

Both supporters and critics of the three clerics have apparently received the supposed message. For example, Abdul Latif Al ASheikh, the former chief of the Saudi religious police, commented on Twitter that the time was now ripe for a clampdown; Saad Al Faqih, a Saudi dissident in London, said the “margin of freedom” previously enjoyed by these religious figures was now closed.

Who are these figures? The clerics – who include Salman Al Odah, Awad Al Qarni and Ali Al Omari, as well as other unconfirmed individuals – are associated with a religious current that dates back to the 1970s, when a broad process of hybridisation between revolutionary Islamist ideas and Salafi teachings led to the birth of a new breed of clericswho portray themselves as reformists. Although products of the trend varied, they tended to be revolutionary. Many of the figures influenced by the trend went on to become jihadis or to directly influence jihadis, while others continued to adhere to peaceful activism.

Some of the most hardline clerics, violent and non-violent, were jailed in the early 2000s in Saudi Arabia for jihadi links. Others, peaceful but politically vocal, continued to enjoy a level of freedom to voice their views. In the wake of the Arab uprisings in 2011, they became social media stars with followers in the millions. They occasionally mobilised supporters against domestic and foreign policies, issuing fatwas and opinions on geopolitics and conflicts in the region.

A clampdown on these clerics was expected and will likely develop into a systematic effort to reverse their influence. Indeed, the role of such clerics is at the heart of the continuing diplomatic and political dispute with Qatar. Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse Qatar of supporting religious and political elements within their societies. When Riyadh took the unprecedented measures against Doha, it expected such figures to fall in line. It made it clear that criticism of the measures against Qatar was a red line, punishable by imprisonment. While most clerics expressed unequivocal support for their country’s grievance with Qatar, these clerics remained silent.


The polarisation in the Qatar row plays against individuals with pro-Islamist sympathies. In addition, pressure on these clerics and activists came at a time when their credibility was already waning inside and outside the country. Their fatwas permitting jihad in several Arab countries, hate speech and other toxic views led to a pushback in recent years. Their one-time dominance online started to become increasingly challenged by young voices fed up by civil wars, sectarianism and “untouchable” celebrity clerics.

As the Qatar crisis erupted in June, Gulf officials privately indicated that a major focus for the countries opposed to Qatari policies would be activist clerics such as the ones arrested over the weekend.

Demand for compliance and solidarity with one’s country had more to do with ensuring uniformity rather than to undermine Qatar.

Even as the diplomatic stalemate with Qatar persists, the four countries see progress on the home front to be a key gain in and of itself.

At the end of the day, their anti-Qatar campaign is primarily a housekeeping effort to shield their countries from what they perceive to be a destabilising ideology with nerve centres in Qatar.

Regardless of how Saudi authorities deal with the arrested clerics, the move almost certainly marks a significant policy change. This new policy will likely continue in different forms to force clerics with previously unfettered religious and political views to fall in line.

Six years ago, these clerics could issue fatwas with no regard for consequences. Saudis repeatedly blamed them online and in mainstream media for youth moving to Syria and joining jihadi groups, but the clerics found themselves under no pressure to change their discourse. Evidently, this seems to be changing.


No return to previous powers of Saudi religious police

SOURCE: Arab News

May 14, 2017

JEDDAH: There will be no return to the previous powers of the religious police, which were regulated last year by a Cabinet decree, an expert with in-depth knowledge of Saudi governmental affairs told Arab News.
The source was speaking in response to an inquiry relating to an active hashtag created by some social media users propagating inaccurate news that the religious police’s powers would be restored in full.
“The story is related to a statement attributed to the religious police official spokesperson, Turki Al-Shalil, which said there’s a soon-to-be announced project to improve and enhance the force’s field operation,” the expert said.
“We always knew the religious police field operations required improvement and enhancement. There’s nothing new there as the guidelines that were announced last year were targeted to end the violations and curb the powers of this body so they revert to their original brief of guiding and assisting people, not arresting or interrogating them, which isn’t their responsibility,” he added.
“More importantly, the religious police reform and governing guidelines were announced last year by a Cabinet decree, and anyone who knows anything about how governments work will tell you that a Cabinet decree can only be undone by another Cabinet decree, and there have been no such new decrees announced.”
In April last year, the government barred the religious police from pursuing suspects or making arrests.
“Members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, or the religious police, will not be allowed to pursue, question, request identification from, or arrest, suspects,” said a Cabinet statement in April last year.
“Members must instead report suspected crimes to the police or drug authorities, who will carry out law enforcement actions. Members are now also required to show identity cards while carrying out official duties,” the statement said.