Saudi Arabia And Indonesia: Clashing Visions Of ‘Moderate Islam’ – Analysis

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) watches as former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and her daughter Puan Maharani, a minister in his cabinet, take a selfie with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman (C)

Two diametrically opposed visions of moderate Islam have emerged as major Muslim powers battle to define the soul of their faith in the 21st century in a struggle that is as much about geopolitics as it is about autocratic survival and visualisations of a future civilisation and world order.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Yahya Cholil Staquf, the newly elected chairman of the central board of Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement, expressed their duelling visions in separate but almost simultaneously published interviews.

While the timing of the interviews was coincidental, they neatly laid out the parameters of a rivalry among major Middle Eastern and Asian Muslim-majority powers to dominate the discourse of Islam’s place as the world transits into an as yet undefined new world order.

Unsurprisingly, the visions expressed by the two leaders mirror the struggle epitomised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine between an autocratic, civilisationalist, and a more democratic and pluralistic vision of the world in the 21st century.


Salafis, Sufis, and the Contest for the Future of African Islam

For centuries, most African Muslims observed their faith according to Sufi practices. Syncretic, mystical, and emphasizing experiencing God, Sufism was well suited to thrive on a continent where traditional religions often had a flexible cosmology that emphasized the supernatural. The fact that illiteracy or a lack of formal theological training was no barrier to fully participating in, or even leading, Sufi rites likely contributed to the practice’s popularity as well.

With its insistence on adherence to the written precepts of certain Islamic holy texts, its ultra-exclusivist worldview, and its strong association with foreign cultures and traditions, Salafism appears as ill-suited for the African context as Sufism is well-suited. Yet today, Salafism dominates the practice of Islam in parts of the continent. In some cases, it has displaced the centuries-long observance of Sufi rites in the span of a few decades.

A confluence of local dynamics that made parts of Africa amenable to Salafi appeals, and the rise of a global Salafi movement supported by wealthy Arab benefactors, explains much of the phenomenon. Those dynamics remain largely the same today, suggesting that Salafism will continue to grow, often at the expense of Sufism. Its expansion will likely follow the same pattern it has followed so far: irregular, falling well short of dominance in many areas, and at times taking on the flavor of the surrounding culture even while the core ideology remains exclusivist and Islamist.

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This is notwithstanding the tentative episodes of Salafi-Sufi toleration and even cooperation that in a few communities has interrupted the hostility that usually exists between the two groups. Those episodes becoming more than an occasional exception would require an unlikely rethinking by Salafis of foundational beliefs that reject any deviation from a narrowly defined conception of correct Islamic practice, and that view correction of those deviations as imperative.


Attempt in Saudi Arabia to restore and reform Islamic law is welcome

There can be no doubt that these reforms signal a major theological shift, and if implemented successfully, will prove to be a watershed moment in the history of Sunni Islam.

It would appear from recent reports that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is making good on his 2017 promise that he would return the country to a moderate Islam and “eradicate promoters of extremist thoughts.” Last month, The Washington Post disclosed that the kingdom had started purging its textbooks of anti-Semitic and misogynistic content, and this month Reuters revealed that four new laws — the personal status law, the civil transactions law, the penal code of discretionary sanctions and the law of evidence — are being finalised with the ultimate aim of codifying the entire Muslim law in consonance with the principles of shariah and best international practices. Saudi women have welcomed the move, with lawyer Dimah Al-Sharif expressing the hope that it will empower both women and society in general.

There can be no doubt that these reforms signal a major theological shift, and if implemented successfully, will prove to be a watershed moment in the history of Sunni Islam. The crown prince’s announcement is also a courageous attempt to break the state-ulema nexus that has been the cause of Muslim intellectual and economic backwardness for centuries — a fact convincingly exposed by scholar Ahmet T Kuru in his new book Islam, Authoritarianism and Underdevelopment. It was this nexus that buttressed the post-Prophetic Muslim expansionism started by Muawiya in 661 CE with the launch of the Umayyad Caliphate. Questionable traditions (hadiths) were fabricated in the name of the Prophet to scripturally entrench the dynastic ambitions of the ruling family. These hadiths otherised rival tribes and communities, and marginalised women.


Inside the evangelical mission to build the first church in Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam where preaching the Bible can land you in jail

  • Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam, has outlawed churches and punished Christian worship for decades.
  • The kingdom’s 1.4 million Christians meet in secret, but authorities are signaling more openness.
  • This is the inside story of the American mission to woo MBS to build the kingdom’s first church.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On a sunny, cloudless October morning in 2019, twenty-five American Christians gathered at the base of Jabal al-Lawz, an umber-colored mountain in northwest Saudi Arabia.

Their leader, the evangelical author and preacher Joel Richardson, took out a Bible he’d brought from back home in Kansas, and started to read out loud.

Soon after, he and his congregation began singing hymns, while their hired Saudi tour guides pulled out their smartphones, and started to film.

Richardson was leading the first-ever Christian tour to Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam where the public practice of any other religion is famously forbidden.

Still, the preacher was taken aback when his phone rang that evening. It was the State Department with a message: “Be careful.”

Richardson is to this day bemused. “I guess some of the videos went viral on Saudi social media or something,” he told Insider in a recent interview.


Saudi Arabia has been scrubbing its textbooks of anti-Semitic and misogynistic passages

Saudi students sit for their final high school exams at the end of the school year in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, June 19, 2010.

BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia has been sharply criticized over the decades for school textbooks that preach women’s subservience to men, anti-Semitism and a general enmity toward religions other than Islam. But those textbooks have been slowly scrubbed of much of this objectionable content, with particularly significant revisions made in the fall.

Gone is a section on sodomy that was supportive of capital punishment for homosexual relations. Gone are most adulations of extremist martyrdom and its characterization as the highest aspiration of Islam. Anti-Semitic references and calls to “fight Jews” are now far fewer, with the latest edition of a 10th-grade textbook having removed a passage quoting the prophet Muhammad as saying, “The [Day of Judgement] will not come until Muslims fight the Jews, and the Muslims will kill them [all].”

The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se), an Israel-based group that monitors school curriculums, welcomed the changes. The group’s chief executive, Marcus Sheff, called them “quite astonishing.”


Saudi Arabia Redefines Role as World’s Defender of Muslims

When Chinese diplomat Tan Banglin defended his country’s treatment of Muslims amid an international outcry, his comments were less remarkable than where he made them.

In a column last July for one of the most widely read newspapers in Saudi Arabia—the traditional protector of Muslims worldwide—Tan talked about how the Communist Party had united with people in Xinjiang province, leading to “great” changes. That’s as nations including the U.S. were accusing China of putting Uighurs into detention camps.

The voice given to China’s consul general in Jeddah, less than 70 kilometers from Islam’s holiest city of Mecca, reflects the new political reckoning under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he prioritizes more secular national interests at a critical juncture for the kingdom. And it’s one that may serve him well as the administration changes in Washington, despite U.S. opposition to Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang.

The Month That Shook The Saudi Economy
Portraits of Mohammed bin Salman and King Salman at a construction site in the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh.Photographer: Tasneem Alsultan/Bloomberg

The Saudi world view is being shaped more by hard-nosed business calculations, shifting geopolitical realities and the emergence of clean energy as a competitor to oil while facing a challenge from Turkey for leadership of the Sunni Muslim sphere.


Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar’s More Tolerant, Liberal Islam: Not What It Seems

The end of oil, the Abraham Accords and Turkey are forcing Gulf states to renegotiate the role of religion in their societies. Talking up openness and moderation, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha have different playbooks – but share a common aim

It wasn’t long ago that Gulf states were actively promoting ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam, and didn’t shy away from cultivating political Islam either. The U.S. National Intelligence Assessment from April 1970 judged Riyadh as “likely to support conservative non-governmental groups in the Arab world, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.”

But times are changing. Gulf states are being forced into a comprehensive rethink of their religious, political and economic systems, triggered by, most immediately, the prospect of drastically declining oil revenues as global demand shifts away from dependence on hydrocarbons. 


Saudi academic cites Prophet Muhammad in bid to normalise ties with Israel

Small gestures have hinted at the development of a closer affinity between Saudi Arabia and Israel, but an academic article on the Prophet Muhammad confirms it further.

As Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Israel warms up, its people-to-people ties are supplementing its diplomatic gestures. Now, for the first time in history a Saudi academic has published a paper in an Israeli journal, with the aim to ‘bring the two nations closer’.

Professor Mohammed Ibrahim Alghbban from King Saud University in Riyadh, published a Hebrew article in Kesher, the journal of the Shalom Rosenfeld Institute for Research of Jewish Media and Communication, at Tel Aviv University.

Professor Raanan Rein, head of the Shalom Rosenfeld Institute, said the move was unprecedented and was driven by Alghbban’s aim to improve relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. 

The Jerusalem post writes, “The Saudi professor said he wrote the article to improve Muhammad’s image among Israelis.”


The Hajj Pilgrimage Is Canceled, and Grief Rocks the Muslim World

The coronavirus pandemic upended the plans of millions of Muslims, for whom the once-in-a-lifetime trip is a sacred milestone.

Ben Hubbard
Declan Walsh

By Ben Hubbard and Declan Walsh

  • June 23, 2020

BEIRUT, Lebanon — For much of his life, Abdul-Halim al-Akoum stashed away cash in hopes of one day traveling from his Lebanese mountain village to perform the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims who can are obliged to make once in their lives.He was all set to go this year until the coronavirus pandemic forced Saudi Arabia to effectively cancel the hajj for what some scholars say may be the first time in history.

“It is the dream of every Muslim believer to visit Mecca and do the hajj,” said Mr. al-Akoum, 61, a village official. “But the pandemic came with no warning and took away that dream.”

The Saudi announcement sent shock waves of sadness and disappointment across the Muslim world, upending the plans of millions of believers to make a trip that many look forward to their whole lives and which, for many, marks a profound spiritual awakening.

A 72-year-old retired port worker in Pakistan will stay home, despite his six children having pooled their money to finance his trip. A mother in Kenya will forgo visiting sites she has long dreamed of seeing. An Egyptian school administrator named Zeinab Ibrahim burst into tears.

“It was my only wish,” Ms. Ibrahim said. “To cancel it completely is such a shame. May God relieve us of this burden.”


Saudi Arabia: Hajj will see at most ‘thousands’ due to virus

DUBAI – A Saudi official said Tuesday that the hajj pilgrimage, which usually draws up to 2.5 million Muslims from all over the world, will only see at the most a few thousand pilgrims next month due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

The kingdom’s Hajj Minister Muhammad Benten said a “small and very limited” number of people — even as low as just 1,000 from inside the kingdom — will be allowed to perform the pilgrimage to ensure social distancing and crowd control amid the global virus outbreak.

“The number, God willing, may be in the thousands. We are in the process of reviewing so it could be 1,000 or less, or a little more,” Benten said in a virtual press conference.

While the decision to drastically curb this year’s hajj was largely expected, it remains unprecedented in Saudi Arabia’s nearly 90-year history and effectively bars all Muslims from outside the kingdom from travelling there to performing the pilgrimage.

The Saudi government waited until just five weeks before the hajj to announce its decision. The timing indicates the sensitivity around major decisions concerning the hajj that affect Muslims around the world.

“This is a very sensitive operation and we are working with experts at the Health Ministry,” Benten said, stressing the importance of protecting the lives and health of pilgrims.