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Saudi Arabia: Secular or Political Salafism? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Among the various ideological interpretations of Islamic religious texts, there has always been one reading that offers a vision similar to that of modern secularism. That reading corresponds with the modern secular view of religion and the state—the relationship between spiritual and temporal affairs. The two are markedly similar in their conclusions about how this impacts on power and society, not to mention political and religious institutions.

Some Arab intellectuals are of the view that Mu’tazila, an Islamic schools of theology based on reason and rational thought, represents a historical example of Islamic rationalism. Some of these intellectuals have even sought to extract “humanism” from the margins of Mu’tazila, using it as a tool to promote an ideological vision.

“Secular Salafism” is an expression that may appear contradictory or even shocking at first glance. However, it is simply traditional Salafism, which does not exploit religion for political purposes in spite of its hardline fiqh (ideological orientation). A clear example is the Sunni interpretation of Shari’a-compliant political action. Today, this philosophy can be seen in the Salafi discourses that have avoided Islamist activism.

There is a traditional Salafi attitude towards the doctrine of obedience to the ruler, which shows how many Salafists approach politics. To them, the ruler is a politician, not a jurist, and he must be most concerned with public interests and affairs of state; his decisions are therefore binding on the populace. One of the most famous traditional Salafi interpretations of this issue was that of Mohammed Ibrahim Shaqra, a disciple of Sheikh Muhammad Nasiruddin Al-Albani, who said that the phrase “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” was an eminently wise maxim for our time.

It is well-known that this phrase is in the Gospel of Matthew, and it was later adopted by Western secularism. Regardless of the differences between Christianity and Islam in terms of the nature of the relationship between politics and religion, this phrase is very important in demonstrating the distinction between the two.

The same also applies to the traditional Salafist attitude towards the Qu’ran’s scientific “miracles,” rather than its linguistic or rhetorical ones. This is a view that first appeared at the same time as political Islam which was being espoused by figures like Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna and Al-Azhar cleric Tantawi Jauhari. Jauhari is the author of a well-known book, Jewels of the Quran, which Al-Banna used to develop his Brotherhood ideology. Likewise, we also have the discourse of Yemeni Brotherhood figure Abdul-Majeed Al-Zindani as put forward in his book, Unifying Morals—not to mention the majority of his discourse. Zindani took his scientific interpretation of the Qu’ran to the point that he claimed to have discovered a cure for HIV. The same can also be seen in the discourse of figures like Zaghloul Najjar and others.

The traditional Salafi approach firmly rejects this mixing of science and religion to the extent that Sheikh Albani himself describes such attempts as being closer to mocking the Qu’ran. Well-known Salafist preacher Muhammad Ibn Al-Uthaymeen went even further, saying that we should not seek to prove the scientific “miracles” of the Qu’ran, adding that the Qu’ran was revealed with the objective of conducting worship and promoting morals.

However, we are now seeing the rise of a new phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. It is represented in efforts to produce religious discourse with a political slant. This is a Salafi discourse that seeks to serve a particular Islamic trend, and is far more capable than the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach of adapting religion to politics.

The production of such a discourse depends on a number of approaches.

First is the doctrinal approach. This relies on producing a new doctrinal hypothesis aimed at opening up dealings with state institutions, bureaucracies and banks, such as through “Islamic” finance. It aims to promote this new discourse in the political arena as a practical and open-minded one, while promoting it among the general public by offering them doctrinal privileges. In turn, this grants the new Salafism greater support, which can then be transformed into political support.

Second, the historical approach can be used to rewrite the historical narrative in Saudi Arabia, redrawing it with new priorities and criteria. The objective of is to allow this new ideology to put down historical and religious roots, while at the same time developing its discourse. This is something that can be clearly seen in a number of books, articles, and blogs.

Third is the human rights approach. Its objective is to politically and religiously exploit human rights issues, turning these into a political tool to impact political decisions, not to mention political orientation in general.

Fourth is the conceptual approach, in which different concepts are mixed, dismantled and rebuilt from scratch. This is a work in progress, although it is expected to be completed in the future in line with new occurrences and events. To take an obvious example, concepts such as “monotheism,” the “state,” “Shari’a law,” and “justice”—or indeed any other religious concepts—have cultural values in Sunni Islam. These terms can therefore be reinterpreted with the objective of casting them in a new light and then using these ideas to secure political gains. This approach can also be applied to Western concepts such as “democracy” and “freedom,” which can be adapted to take on an appropriate shape within the new religious–political discourse.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the political approach. It involves combining the other four approaches—doctrinal, historical, human rights and conceptual—to produce a coherent political discourse that can be imposed on the entire political, cultural and social scene.

This discourse relies on using traditional Salafi concepts after they have been emptied of their religious basis, replacing them with purely political ideology instead.

The external manifestations of this discourse can be seen in some intellectuals who belong to minorities, who are involved in this process with the sole objective of achieving political gains. No party wants to raise this issue at this stage. This can also be seen in the activities of liberal Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, mainly intellectuals, journalists or activists, not to mention the Western aid indicated above.

Finally, it is no secret that this new discourse is striving to promote itself by magnifying existing mistakes and social problems.