Questioning the Faith in the Cradle of Islam
In Saudi Arabia, a new generation is pushing back against the government’s embrace of fundamentalism. But is the kingdom ready for nonbelievers?
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Ahmed al-Ghamdi’s long, bushy beard and red-checked headscarf are emblems of his conservative approach to Islam, which is no surprise for a man who once supervised the Saudi religious police in the holy city of Mecca.
But it was something surprising about Ghamdi that brought me to his apartment in a scruffy, low-income section of Jeddah in the sweltering summer of 2011. I wanted to know why he had announced that, after extensive research, he could find no Islamic basis for Saudi society’s most distinctive feature: its strict gender segregation.
As his wife, sister, and mother listened in with obvious pride, Ghamdi explained that he could no longer take "at face value" religious rulings that gender mixing is haram — that is, religiously prohibited. "I wanted to go to their underpinnings, so I began collecting all the texts relating to this matter from the Quran and the Sunna [examples from the life and teachings of the Prophet Mohammed]," he said. "My conclusion was that not a single text or verse in the Quran and Sunna specifically says that mixing is haram. The word ‘mixing’ is not even in the Quran."
Instead, he said he found plenty of texts "that proved that mixing happened at the time of Prophet Mohammed" and that "it is just another part of normal life."
Ghamdi’s declaration sparked weeks of impassioned national debate. It also got him fired from the religious police, which enforces the ban on mixing.
His story is but one example of how the religious landscape of Saudi Arabia — often regarded as fixed and monochromatic — is increasingly a landscape in flux.
We are not witnessing a Reformation in the birthplace of Islam. Mosque and state remain closely bound in Saudi Arabia, basic law is derived from sharia, and the king is known as the "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques," a reference to the holy places of Mecca and Medina.
But the religious attitudes of ordinary people are changing, as is the relationship between the House of Saud and its clerical establishment. This evolving religious scene is marked by less clerical control of social behavior, increasing diversity of religious thought, and more polarization between progressive and extreme right-wing versions of Islam. These changes have already diminished the monarchy’s ability to use religion to enforce social conformity and political obedience. And as the kingdom struggles with questions over succession and the Middle East’s escalating mayhem, these changes will bring added challenges to the House of Saud’s grip on power.
These developments were apparent during my stay in the kingdom from 2008 to 2011 and on two subsequent trips there in 2012 and 2014. Interviews with scores of Saudis provided details of how attitudes are shifting. And in a stunning decree in March 2014, the government displayed how perturbed it was by the rising religious skepticism by declaring that it is now a terrorist offense to "question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based."
To be sure, the official religious institutions and Islamic law still command considerable support from Saudis. But an analysis of public opinion polls conducted between 2003 and 2011 found that support for sharia seems to be waning.
"This decline may indicate that the Saudi public desire[s] fewer intrusions into their daily lives by religious authorities and less rigorous application of the [sharia] law by the government," wrote University of Maryland sociologist Mansoor Moaddel and the University of Michigan’s Julie de Jong.
The deepening divides in Saudi Arabia’s religious landscape are evident in several ways. The dominance of the kingdom’s strict Salafi-style Islam, known as Wahhabism, is being challenged like never before. Long-accepted religious assumptions are being disputed — whether it be clerical authority, theological rationales for monarchy, Wahhabism’s superiority, or male control of women.
"The basic foundations [of Wahhabism] that used to be sort of givens, or fundamentals, which were taken for granted, are now being deconstructed, challenged, or reconsidered," said Abdullah Hamidaddin, a Saudi doctoral candidate at King’s College London who is studying the kingdom’s religious scene.
Hamidaddin noted that when Nelson Mandela died in 2013, "You had this debate on Twitter [in Saudi Arabia] about whether one could pray for him or not. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t imagine anyone doubting that it’s a sin [to pray for him] because he’s a non-Muslim…. He was good, but that’s it, and after his death no one should even think of asking for mercy for him."
At the same time, religious ultraconservatives maintain strong followings in the Saudi population, which is deeply devout and averse to change. These hard-line clerics, who often criticize the government, adamantly oppose social and religious changes and act as a brake on Saudi Arabia’s transition to a more creative, globally integrated nation. They are, for example, the main reason Saudi women are banned from driving.
Islamist activists seeking power-sharing arrangements with the monarchy comprise another important facet of Saudi Arabia’s religious arena. Energized by the Arab Spring, they have been reined in by arrests, long prison sentences, and the government’s banning of the Muslim Brotherhood in March. But they have not abandoned their agenda for religious-based political change.
Saudi Arabia’s religious ferment also presents challenges for the United States’ dealings with this key strategic ally. Maintaining a close partnership with the royal family is essential for U.S. national interests — especially at a time when radical jihadi movements like the Islamic State have captured large areas of neighboring Iraq and Syria. At the same time, American diplomats will have to deal with the repercussions of Saudi Arabia’s more complex religious milieu. For example, they must learn how to counter, when possible, opposition to the monarchy’s modernizing policies from anti-Western clerical factions, and they cannot ignore government repression of peaceful Islamist political activists — a repression that jeopardizes the kingdom’s long-term stability.
Why faith is changing
Several forces are propelling the diverse changes in Saudi Arabia’s religious landscape. Most important is the imminent passage of members of Saudi Arabia’s largest-ever "youth bulge" into their early 20s. Youths between 15 and 24 years old make up around 17 percent of Saudi Arabia’s 27 million people, and they have far more questions about their faith than their elders did.
Saudi Arabia’s isolation from regional and global trends has also been demolished by satellite television, the Internet, and the experiences of more than 150,000 Saudis sent abroad for studies on government scholarships. As a result, Saudis have greater access to religious information than ever before — particularly about how Islam is practiced elsewhere.
As of March 2014, Saudi Arabia’s 2.4 million active Twitter users accounted for 40 percent of the Arab world’s 5.8 million active tweeters. And from January to May 2014, Saudi Arabia had the fifth-highest number of new Facebook users in the Arab region, according to the latest report in the Arab Social Media Report series, produced by the Dubai School of Government’s Governance and Innovation Program.
"There are so many [Twitter] hashtags regarding debates about religion," said doctoral candidate Hamidaddin. "You wouldn’t have seen that talked about openly even two to three years ago." Moreover, "people are talking about many fundamental issues using their real names. Six to seven years ago, some of these discussions were happening — but behind false names on Internet forums."
The kingdom’s religious scene is also feeling the shock waves of the Arab revolutions, which have unleashed politically activist Salafi movements ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to the anarchistic, violent jihadists of the Islamic State. These organizations reject the Wahhabi teaching that Muslims must avoid political activities and give complete loyalty and obedience to their ruler.
"People are still Salafi Wahhabi, but they are redefining the concept of Salafi Wahhabi differently from what was limited to us here by the government," observed Bassim Alim, a lawyer in Jeddah. "They are more open to sympathy with other schools of thought."
The young and the restless
Uptown966, a tony, high-ceilinged Jeddah eatery, serves "Mediterranean-international fusion" cuisine. On a recent afternoon, the restaurant was full of young people lounging, chatting, and laughing. Men and women sat together, unfazed by the prospect of a visit from the religious police in this most liberal of Saudi cities.
"I can’t be silent about how the religious people want people to be under them. They want to control people, ban songs, ban music, ban many things. I can’t ignore this," said Mohannad Najjar, 23, who had brought me to the trendy restaurant.
Like many young Saudis I met, Najjar chafes under the clerical establishment’s restrictions. As a result of their influence, for example, there are no movie theaters or music concerts in Saudi Arabia. He speaks derisively about the dictates from government-appointed clerics, who are widely regarded as out of touch with young people. And he’d like to see a less dogmatic, more open-minded approach to Islam prevail in the kingdom.
"I see on Twitter now sarcasm towards sheikhs because they are not living the modern life," he said, citing the ridicule that thousands of Saudis directed toward one sheikh after he said that women who drive could damage their ovaries.
Young Saudis "are looking for individual freedom and rights, not for religion," said Mohammed al-Abdulkareem, an assistant professor of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, a conservative religious university in Riyadh.
This "big change" began after the Arab revolutions, he said. "It’s clear to me that from the Arab Spring, people discovered the ideas of human rights and individual freedom and that these ideas were more effective and more successful to get a change in their governments," he said. "Why would you expect that people would return to religious trends when … these trends and religious institutions didn’t pay attention to human rights and the freedom of the people?"
The youths described by Abdulkareem are part of what some experts call a "post-Islamist" generation, which prefers religion be relegated to the private sphere and barred from politics. The trend is encapsulated in a 27-year-old Saudi woman I met in Riyadh. Raised in a traditionally religious family, she wears the Islamic headscarf and is religiously devout — but she dislikes how her government has used her faith for its own ends.
"Islam came to free people. Islam didn’t come to put them in jail," she said. "And the government uses it to put people in jail and under their control. So they control us by Islam…. That makes a lot of people not even want Islam."
She resents the encompassing role that Saudi religious authorities have claimed and prefers the Tunisian model, in which there is a greater separation of mosque and state. "If anyone wants to be an infidel, it’s up to him. If he wants to be atheist, it’s up to him," she said.
Disillusionment with religion-based politics and dismay at the sectarianism ravaging the Middle East have led some young Saudis to a revival of interest in pan-Arab nationalism, which dominated the region in the 1950s and 1960s. It is especially evident in Riyadh, where for the past couple of years groups have met in private homes to discuss an ideology that regards Arab identity, language, and culture — rather than Islam — as the lodestar of politics.
"We are not convinced by sectarian rhetoric," said Bader al-Ibrahim, 29, an epidemiologist who is an active proponent of Arabism. "Young people who like Arabism are rejecting the Islamic groups and political Islam in general."
We respect Islam "as part of the Arab identity and Arab culture," Ibrahim added, "but we don’t politicize this Islamic identity. Because if you put it into politics, you get more sectarianism, and we can see that in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon…. We think the Arab identity can gather Sunni and Shiite together in one political identity."
Atheists and skeptics in Islam’s birthplace
An attractive Saudi mother in her 30s who works at a private company was chatting with me on the phone when she dropped a bombshell. "You might know that I’ve left Islam," she said, in a casual aside.
Startled, I asked her to back up and tell me more about her spiritual life.
"I consider myself agnostic now," she said. "You can see from Twitter there are a lot of Saudis — obviously they are not using their real names — but they’re either atheist or agnostic or have left religion…. It’s not something we’re used to seeing. It’s very new … within the last couple to three years."
She has not told her family about her loss of faith because for them "that is the absolute worst thing ever. If they knew, I don’t know, I think they might, they might, kill me. Like literally."
Atheism is a capital offense in the kingdom, though no one has been executed for atheism in recent years as far as is known. Still, anecdotal evidence suggests that Saudis are increasingly willing to admit to being atheist in private conversations or anonymously on social media.
"I know at least six atheists who confirmed that to me," said Fahad al-Fahad, 31, a marketing consultant and human rights activist in Jeddah. "Six or seven years ago, I wouldn’t even have heard one person say that. Not even a best friend would confess that to me."
Despite their new visibility, atheists remain a tiny minority in the kingdom. In a 2012 global poll by WIN-Gallup International, 5 percent of the 502 Saudi respondents described themselves as "convinced atheist" — well below the global average of 13 percent.
Nevertheless, the more open talk about atheism has so discomfited the government and its clerical allies that they have banned such discussion. It is now a terrorist offense in Saudi Arabia to advocate "atheist thought."
Expressions of atheism are part of a general disillusionment with Saudi Arabia’s religious-political alliance. "We no longer understand our religion, not because we don’t want to, but because our vision of it, our understanding of it, has been polluted by the monarchy that uses it to prolong its existence," said one disgruntled Saudi. The royal family, he added, "would convert to Buddhism if it helped them to stay in power."
Some Saudis contend that mosque attendance has decreased. Their observation is supported by a 2003 poll of 1,026 Saudis by the Middle Eastern Values Study, which found that a majority (56 percent) said they attended mosque prayers "once a year or less or on special holy days." The finding is noteworthy, given Saudi Arabia’s image as a religiously devout nation and given that religious police, up until recently, aggressively pushed people to attend services during prayer times
Sociologists Mansoor Moaddel and Julie de Jong also detected a significant shift in how Saudis self-identify. In surveys, those who defined themselves primarily as "Saudi" jumped from 17 percent in 2003 to 48 percent in 2011, while those defining themselves primarily as "Muslim" dropped from 75 percent in 2003 to 46 percent in 2011.
"These changes are remarkable, particularly given that Saudi Arabia is the bastion of conservative Islam," the academics wrote. "The fact that only 46% of the public self-identify as Islamic may be indicative of profound changes in values that are going on in the kingdom."
Intellectuals voice religious dissent
Seated in a small, book-lined room of his Riyadh home, Mohammed al-Abdulkareem poured coffee and offered chocolate bars to his guests. The bearded professor of Islamic jurisprudence has a no-nonsense demeanor and straightforward style of talking, unlike the obfuscating language often used by religious scholars. The last of his three books, Deconstructing Authoritarianism, critically examines theological justifications for nondemocratic rule. It is banned in Saudi Arabia.
Abdulkareem is among a handful of Saudi intellectuals, most of them trained in Islamic studies, who are disputing the basic tenets of how Wahhabism is practiced in the kingdom. These figures usually challenge the ideas and authority of the official religious establishment. But sometimes their commentaries have a political dimension, bringing them into conflict with the royal family. So, for example, since 2011 Abdulkareem has been prohibited from teaching, though he remains a salaried faculty member at Al-Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University.
"My main idea is that we cannot build a society without focusing on the basic values we have," said Abdulkareem. At the moment, he says, Saudi Arabia puts security above justice — and this is the foundation of the kingdom’s problems. "We need to have justice above security," he said. "This is the most important theory that we need to change in our Islamic traditions and preaching…. The first thing we need to focus on is that justice is above security."
Another university professor, Abdullah al-Maliki, has evolved from an ultraconservative to someone who now argues that implementing democracy, not Islamic law, should be the political goal of Muslim societies. Maliki "twists the Islamic slogan from ‘Islam is the solution’ to ‘sovereignty of the people is the solution,’" wrote Hamidaddin, the doctoral student. "For someone inside Saudi Arabia to come and say that the people should be the ones who choose sharia or not was really a fundamental shift," he added in an interview.
Hamza al-Salem, 48, has also shifted. Once a self-described "very pure, fundamental Wahhabi," Salem majored in Islamic studies at university and served in the Saudi military during the Gulf War. He then got his doctorate in international finance at Clark University in Massachusetts. Today, he is a writer and a consultant for the Advisory Board for Economic Affairs, which is attached to the royal court.
His studies in the United States provoked a reassessment of his religious assumptions, he said. For one, he has come to believe that the widespread Islamic view that charging interest on loans is sinful stems from an incorrect reading of Islamic scriptures. Saudi religious authorities cannot accept his "very strong, valid argument" on this matter, he contended during an interview in his Riyadh home, because reversing their position would be a major blow to their credibility.
"That would make a huge collapse in the minds and hearts of people, and they would start waking up," Salem said.
The king and the religious right
Dressed in their finest robes, several dozen long-bearded clerics gathered outside the royal court in Riyadh in January 2013 demanding to speak with King Abdullah. They were angry that he had appointed 30 women to the formerly all-male Shura Council, the country’s top advisory body. Denied an audience, they loitered outside the court in a kind of makeshift demonstration for a couple of hours, in violation of the Wahhabi prohibition on public criticism of the ruler.
The protesters were not members of official religious institutions, which had rubber-stamped the king’s decision. Rather, they were ultraconservative, anti-Western sheikhs who regard any societal change as a Western-inspired threat to Saudi Arabia’s Islamic identity. Still, their convictions are amply represented among state-employed clerics, who are simply more judicious about voicing their opinions.
A statement issued by seven of the protesting sheikhs offered an insight into their worldview. According to the news blog Riyadh Bureau, their grievances were not limited to including women on the Shura Council, but also included "sponsoring ideological chaos and cultural looseness" through cafes, libraries, book fairs, and literature clubs; establishing law schools and "weakening" sharia courts; sending students to study overseas at the cost of billions of riyals; permitting women to compete in sports; and allowing the "normalization of gender mixing in society" by permitting women to take jobs in restaurants, retail, manufacturing, and law firms.
These ultraconservative, anti-Western sheikhs and their worldview are all a direct threat to King Abdullah’s domestic political agenda. The monarch was reportedly shocked by the religious extremism that had led some Saudis to terrorism, first against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and then against the Saudi monarchy in 2003, when two bombings of residential compounds in Riyadh claimed dozens of lives. So after ascending to the throne in 2005, he began opening up Saudi society, expanding the number of universities, bringing women into the workplace, and raising their public profile by allowing them to vote in municipal council elections and debate in the Shura Council. The king also launched reforms in courts and schools aimed at weakening religious hard-liners’ dominance in both areas. In addition, he imposed greater controls on the religious police, curbing its violent abuses of citizens and restricting its patrols. And under the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, more than 150,000 Saudis have studied abroad in 30 countries to broaden their perspectives. Almost half came to the United States.
King Abdullah also attempted to distance the monarchy from some of the most bigoted Wahhabi doctrines. In 2007, he became the first Saudi monarch to visit the Vatican, where he met Pope Benedict XVI. The king also hosted an international interfaith summit in Spain and funded construction of an interfaith center in Austria. Unremarkable in most countries, these actions were disdained by the kingdom’s ultraconservative clerics because they explicitly repudiated the Wahhabi dictum that non-Muslims are "infidels" to be shunned lest they weaken a true Muslim’s faith.
The religious right pushed back against King Abdullah by obstructing his proposed reforms in the courts — where ultraconservatives remain powerful — and stalling on educational reforms, including the effort to delete intolerant language from religious textbooks. These clerics are also suspected of clandestinely financing Wahhabi-like groups outside the kingdom, including violent jihadists like the Islamic State, despite royal edicts banning such funding.
And just as reformists use social media to publicize their frustration with Saudi religious orthodoxy, the ultraconservatives use websites, blogs, and Twitter accounts to express their displeasure with King Abdullah’s policies. Sheikh Abdullah al-Dawood, for example, tweeted: "If we keep silent about the step of adding PE classes to girls’ schools, then we are giving the … green light to continue the steps of Westernization, and these steps will end in infidelity and prostitution."
Sheikh Saleh al-Fawzan, a member of the royally appointed Council of Senior Clerics, also used his website to issue a fatwa prohibiting Muslims from watching World Cup matches during Ramadan. "[T]hese games have no use, and they are harmful and a waste of time," he wrote, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute.
For the most part, the king has ignored protests from hard-liners, whether state-employed or independent sheikhs. But on occasion, he has fired critics from their jobs or briefly detained them for being too outspoken in their views. In 2009, for example, Sheikh Saad al-Shethri was removed from the Council of Senior Clerics after publicly objecting to the opening of the country’s only co-ed graduate university. And in 2011, Sheikh Youssef al-Ahmed was arrested after demanding the release of prisoners held for alleged terrorism.
The upshot is that King Abdullah’s decade-long reign has seen a shift to a more contentious relationship between the monarchy and the clerical community. "Absolutely the relationship between the government and the religious establishment has changed," said Faisal bin Saud bin Abdulmohsen, director of cultural affairs at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. "The government is enforcing more control on the religious institutions."
For now, the ultraconservatives are kept in check by the government. But as Saudi society continues to modernize, right-wing religious militancy from those who oppose modernizing measures could emerge as a serious issue. Even if its followers decline in numbers, their intensity could grow. In addition, some Saudis fear that the fighting in Iraq and Syria, which has drawn an estimated 2,500 Saudi youths to fight with jihadi rebels, could lead to unrest in the kingdom as these combat-hardened fundamentalists come home.
"When the Arab Spring started, young religious people were asking about Islam and democracy," said Saud al-Sarhan, director of research at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies. "But now they are just asking about Islam and jihad, after what is going on in Syria."
Confronting political Islam
If the ultraconservatives are concerned mostly with social and religious issues, a very different matter — and one more worrying to the monarchy — motivates another sector of the religious community: reform of the political power structure.
The Islamist political trend in Saudi Arabia includes both lay and clerical activists who want to loosen the royal family’s monopoly on power and have elected bodies share its political prerogatives. Although more open to societal change than the ultraconservatives, these activists are not liberal democrats no social progressives by Western standards. Rather, in many ways they share the outlook and goals of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has inspired Saudi political activists for decades.
The Brotherhood’s roots in the kingdom go back to the 1950s and 1960s, when Saudi Arabia took in Brothers facing persecution in Egypt and Syria. Although not able to formally organize because all political parties are banned, the Brothers spread their ideas through the education system. They also were lionized as Muslim role models. As a result, many Saudis adopted "the Muslim Brotherhood lifestyle and outlook on life," said Alim, the Jeddah lawyer.
But in recent years, the Saudi government became uncomfortable with the Muslim Brotherhood’s politically activist ethos and its embrace of the democratic process. The election of a Brotherhood figure, Mohamed Morsi, as president of Egypt in 2012 dismayed the Saudi government even as it delighted Saudi Islamist activists. When the Egyptian military ousted Morsi in July 2013, the Saudi government instantly welcomed the coup and became the primary international backer of the new regime. In March, the government announced that it had designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, making it unlawful for Saudis to give it even the mildest form of support. Essentially, the decree was a warning shot to Saudi political Islamists to cease mobilizing.
Many Islamist activists, including some associated with the official clerical establishment, decried the coup and disavowed the government’s anti-Brotherhood stance. "It’s so strange that I’m confused about it," said Salman al-Oadah, a popular sheikh and prominent critic of the government. "I believe now we have moved from the stage of fighting terrorism to abusing terrorism…. The Muslim Brothers are not terrorists. They don’t believe in violence."
Keeping the faith and staying in power
The kingdom’s evolving religious milieu underscores a major dilemma for the House of Saud: how to adjust to these changes without undermining its political legitimacy. While the royal family’s legitimacy depends on other factors besides religion, its image and identity are closely bound to Islam. For this reason, it’s hard to see how Saudis’ relationship with their rulers will not be affected by the ongoing changes in their religious attitudes, as well as changes in religious institutions of the state.
The monarchy will continue to use Islam to justify its decisions and reinforce its authority. But it may have to allow more religious diversity and non-Wahhabi voices than in the past in order to maintain domestic peace. Yet it cannot have escaped royal attention that allowing different Islamic interpretations to coexist creates a pluralist intellectual environment — precisely the environment in which a democratic culture can emerge to threaten an absolute monarchy. Even in the cradle of Islam.