Will Saudi Arabia Cease to Be the Center of Islam?

07devji-jumboSaudi Arabia, or the Arabian Peninsula before the formation of the modern kingdom, has been and remains a place both central and marginal to Muslims around the world.

An Urdu novel published in 1869 by Nazir Ahmad, a writer in Delhi, portrays two young Muslim girls at their geography lesson. As they identify various countries on a map, the girls come across the Arabian Peninsula. Their teacher describes it as an empty space infested by marauding Bedouin, one whose only significance lay in its historical role as the site of Islam’s birth.

The monuments and institutions of Mecca and Medina, the birthplaces of Islam, had always been minor in architectural quality and financial endowment compared with the splendid mosques, tombs and seminaries found at the centers of Muslim power in Baghdad and Cairo, Istanbul and Isfahan, Delhi and Samarkand.

Muslim kings rarely visited Mecca and Medina. Instead, those cities served as places of exile for their enemies.

Saudi Arabia, or the Arabian Peninsula before the formation of the modern kingdom, has been and remains a place both central and marginal to Muslims around the world. Even as Mecca and Medina represent the most important sites of Muslim pilgrimage, the vision of the holy cities as remote and perilous is still reinforced by the occasional stampede of pilgrims during the Hajj.

FULL ARTICLE FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES 

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Saudi Arabia may relax its ban on Christian churches

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New evidence suggests the Prophet tolerated churches in Arabia

FOR a generation the Saudi antiquities authority has kept it under wraps. The ruins remain out of bounds behind metal gates and wire fencing. A guard shoos the curious away with threats of arrest. But if independent studies are correct, tucked in the dunes and palms near the eastern oilfields lies a 7th-century monastery, the existence of which suggests that Islam once tolerated church-building in Arabia.

Muhammad bin Salman, the modernising crown prince, has defied clerics by allowing cinemas, open-air pop concerts and even female drivers in his puritanical kingdom. But approving churches for the 1.4m Christians in Saudi Arabia risks breaking one taboo too many. “Elsewhere it’s no problem, but two dins, or religions, have no place in the Arabian peninsula,” says a senior prince, reciting a purported saying of the Prophet Muhammad. Churches were expunged by the first community of Muslims 14 centuries ago, he insists.

Excavation at Jubail and other sites along the eastern coast suggests otherwise. Chroniclers record the existence of a synod in a diocese called Beit Qatraye, near Jubail, in 676AD, more than 40 years after the Prophet’s death. Moreover, the peninsula’s six other countries all have churches. Qatar, which follows the same Wahhabi school of Islam as Saudi Arabia, let one be built a decade ago. Bahrain did so in 1906. This year it broke ground on Our Lady of Arabia, a new cathedral.

Saudi exceptionalism matters because the kingdom is home to Islam’s holiest sites and is the prime propagator of the faith. In October Prince Muhammad said he wanted Saudi Arabia to be “open to all religions, traditions and people around the globe”. But off the Saudi coast in Bahrain, Camillo Ballin, the Catholic bishop of Northern Arabia, complains that nothing has changed for Saudi Arabia’s Christians. Private prayer is tolerated, but the public display of Christian symbols is not. Communion in a country that bans wine is problematic. Priests sneak in as cooks or mechanics to tend to their flocks.

FULL ARTICLE FROM THE ECONOMIST 

Saudi Arabia ‘agrees deal with Vatican to build churches for Christians living in the Muslim country’

515fcf92a97931d5719e6ab6c697a146b585e43dSaudi Arabia has agreed a deal with the Vatican to build churches for Christian worshippers in the Arab country, it is claimed by Middle Eastern media.

The reported agreement between Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (file photo) and Mohammed bin Abdel Karim Al-Issa of the Muslim World League would mark a first in Saudi history

Saudi Arabia has agreed a deal with the Vatican to build churches for Christian worshippers in the Arab country, it is claimed by Middle Eastern media.

The reported agreement between Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran and Mohammed bin Abdel Karim Al-Issa of the Muslim World League would mark a first in Saudi history.

The cardinal has visited Saudi Arabia this year and met the royal family, urging the Muslim country to treat its citizens equally.

The churches will be built alongside the establishment of a committee to improve relations between the two, Egypt Independent reports.

There was no immediate confirmation from the Vatican.

Saudi Arabia’s anti-extremism Etidal centre also hosted Cardinal Tauran last month as the crown prince pushes for inter-religious exchange in the ultra-conservative Sunni kingdom.

FULL ARTICLE FROM DAILY MAIL (UK)

Christians should not be second-class citizens, cardinal tells Saudi Arabia

1689484-cardinal-1524118709-380-640x480French cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran’s trip, the first by such a senior Catholic figure, raised hopes of more openness in the kingdom, which is home to Islam’s holiest sites but bans the practice of other faiths. It included a meeting with King Salman, his first with a Catholic official.

“I think all religions are faced with two dangers: terrorism and ignorance,” Tauran, who is head of the Vatican’s Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, told Vatican Radio.

“During my meetings, I insisted very much on this point, that Christians and non-Muslims are spoken of well in schools and that they are never considered second-class citizens,” he said.

Tauran, 75, who signed a cooperation accord with Saudi authorities, said he sensed that they wanted “to show that even in Saudi Arabia there is the possibility of discussion, and therefore of changing the country’s image”.

FULL ARTICLE FROM REUTERS

Signs of Saudi shift to ‘moderate’ Islam emerging at home and abroad

ss13LONDON – Saudi Arabia is increasing efforts to promote a “moderate” form of Islam, a promise made by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz to help move the kingdom into the modern era.

A member of the kingdom’s Council of Senior Scholars, considered the country’s chief religious body, recently stated that women were not under religious obligation to wear the abaya, the traditional loose-fitting black robe worn by Muslim women in the Gulf region.

During a question-and-answer session on a Mecca radio station, Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq said Muslim women should dress modestly but that the abaya was not a religious requirement.

“More than 90% of committed Muslim women in the Islamic world do not wear the abaya,” Mutlaq said. “We see them in Mecca and Medina. They are women who, may God bless them, are committed and memorise the Quran and preach for God but they do not wear abayas. For this reason, my friends, we do not oblige [women] to wear abaya.”

On the same programme, Mutlaq said long fingernails were frowned upon in Islam.

Mutlaq’s comments, which carry significant weight in religious circles, led to fierce debates and the creation of the Twitter hashtag #Al-Mutlaq_theabaya_not necessary.

“Those who trade in religion know that the life the Muslim Brotherhood has grown accustomed to in the past 40 years is over and these hypocrites must a find a different path instead of using religion to control people’s lives,” wrote Twitter user @OmrRian.

Other reactions were less supportive.

“Even if 100 fatwas have been issued, I swear to God I will never leave my abaya. Over my dead body. Girls, do not listen to the fatwas,” wrote Twitter user @Kooshe90.

As home to two of Islam’s holiest sites, Saudi Arabia has long been defined culturally by its role and place in the religion. However, in a post 9/11 world, the kingdom has also been accused of supporting an intolerant form of Islam.

FULL ARTICLE FROM ARAB NEWS

Saudis dedicated to enhancing role of dialogue to combat violence in name of religion

1098101-1650648600JEDDAH: The Secretary-General of the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID), Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muammar, affirmed the center’s commitment to enhancing the role of dialogue in combating violence in the name of religion.

Muammar was addressing an audience at the International Conference on “Tackling Violence in the Name of Religion” held in Rome on Saturday, in the presence of a number of religious, political and intellectual leaders from around the world to discuss best practices to activate the role of individuals, leaders and religious institutions in this field.

He pointed to the importance of the Vienna Conference, which was organized by the center under the title “United against violence in the name of religion,” explaining that the outcomes of that conference were the basis of the center’s future strategy and played an important role in the formulation of the United Nations Plan of Action for the year 2015 to combat violent extremism leading to genocide.

Mummar added that the center’s strategy of activating the role of religious individuals, leaders and institutions is based on making them key partners, working side by side with policy makers in effectively addressing the multiple threats to peaceful coexistence and tolerance that extremist groups are involved in.

FULL ARTICLE FROM ARAB NEWS

Mohammed bin Salman’s Next Saudi Challenge: Curtailing Ultraconservative Islam

saudiCrown prince’s overhaul includes a crackdown on religious fundamentalists who exercised rigid control; female drivers and music concerts

ABHA, Saudi Arabia—Arwa Alneami wanted to be an artist ever since she was a child. But growing up in the conservative region of Asir, she was constrained by a rigid strain of Sunni Islam that has long defined life in Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s image to the outside world. When she drew a bird, Ms. Alneami recalls, teachers would scold her and cross off its head, saying only God can create life.

Now that religious control is coming under its sharpest challenge in modern times. Saudi leaders, spurred by the need to diversify the oil-dependent economy, are moving faster than any of their predecessors to unravel the legacy of Islamic conservatism that had taken hold of the country four decades ago and shaped the education of generations.

Spearheading the transformation is 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who sees social liberalization as a vital part of his radical economic modernization plan and has vowed to return his country to a more tolerant form of Islam.

“We are only going back to how we were: to the tolerant, moderate Islam that is open to the world, to all the religions and traditions of its people,” Prince Mohammed said during an investment conference in Riyadh in October.

Ms. Alneami, 32, today is a rising star of the kingdom’s burgeoning contemporary art scene. “Before, I had a love-hate relationship with Saudi Arabia,” she says. “I used to think a lot about leaving the country. I wanted to go somewhere where I could have a normal life. Now, normal is coming to us.”

FULL ARTICLE FROM THE WALL STREET JOURNAL