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The “Sahwa” of Awad al Qarni | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The name Dr. Awad al Qarni, the Saudi cleric, not to be confused with Aaidh al Qarni, has featured in the headlines recently after he was accused of funding the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and money laundering. At first, the Egyptian prosecution mixed up Awad with Aaidh but there is a difference between the two men. The famous Saudi cleric and celebrated scholar Sheikh Aaidh al Qarni, who contributes to this newspaper, completely denied the allegations and explained that he had nothing to do with the entire story. The Egyptian State Security Prosecutor Hisham Badawi ended the confusion over the name of the Saudi cleric who was charged with funding the Muslim Brotherhood and money laundering by announcing that the accused in this case is Saudi cleric Awad al Qarni and not Aaidh al Qarni.

We are not concerned here with the judicial and legal details. This is the concern of those involved in the case including suspects, lawyers, the prosecution and the judiciary. Sheikh Awad al Qarni refuted the accusations levelled against him, describing his name featuring on the list of those involved in funding the Muslim Brotherhood as a Zionist conspiracy and arguing that the charge was pre-planned, as quoted in his interview with Saudi Arabian daily Okaz on April 29, 2010. I sincerely hope that Sheikh Awad al Qarni is relieved of all these legal pursuits.

What matters to me here is not the Egyptian accusations made against Sheikh al Qarni, but rather his comments on the matter as printed in Okaz newspaper. To be honest, the man spoke openly and clearly about the position of the Islamic movement in Saudi Arabia in his capacity as a leading figure within it, and about the changes taking place in Saudi society and the battles that are now being fought not only between the so-called liberals and Islamists, but also between Islamists themselves over women’s issues, education and intolerance towards each other. These heated arguments concern every Saudi citizen.

The Chairman of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice in Mecca, Sheikh Ahmed Bin Qassim al Ghamdi, caused shock when he said there was unwarranted excessiveness in the way the issue of gender mixing was being tackled and that the religious current followed an excessive hardline policy on gender mixing. There were numerous reactions to the comment and the most recent came in the form of a letter conveyed by one of the patriarchs of Islamism in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al Barak and it was addressed to numerous Sheikhs including Shiekh al Ghamdi. In that message, Sheikh al Barak advised scholars to refrain from issuing fatwas that loosen the juristic position towards women. Al Barak considered those scholars “keys for evil to spread among the Ummah by belittling and justifying the goals of the disbelievers and hypocrites or rather the enemies of God; those enemies who aim to change the condition of this beloved country of Saudi Arabia, the homeland of the Two Grand Mosques, and lead it to the same destiny of those Muslim countries that fell under the yoke of colonialism for centuries until the colonialists were finally able to change their identity and implement their plots. They did not leave those countries until they had handed them over to people who would maintain their plots. It is no secret that one of colonialism’s major plots was what came to be known as the liberation of women.”

As we all know, Sheikh al Barak caused a commotion a few weeks ago when he issued a fatwa labelling those who allow gender mixing as apostates. It is common knowledge that the punishment for an apostate is capital punishment after asking them to repent. This fatwa by Sheikh al Barak raised protest from a number of scholars and clerics in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

Let us return to the issue of Awad al Qarni and his interview in Okaz newspaper. He said that he understood the logic of those who reject the renewal of some juristic views despite not being against renewal himself. He said he can understand why people adopt such sceptical positions, especially if that scepticism is placed in its general context. Let us go through what he said whilst answering the following question: are nightmares an obstacle in the way of accepting new juristic interpretations?

Allow me to explain; people feel that these interpretations are meant to serve a certain purpose and that they somehow reflect an integrated project that reveals itself bit by bit. When people fail to convince, they start to search here and there for intellectual and juristic justifications as well as plausible research and scientific arguments.

Sometimes people would hurriedly accept such ideas without understanding the core of the idea. But as soon as they grasp their essence, they reject them right away. It is noticeable that if we take those ideas out of their intellectual, social and political contexts, we would find they are not problematic and probably open to acceptable debate. However, when they are returned to their contexts, they are likely to have more grievous consequences and results.

Then attacks were launched towards calls for renewal as they are part of “the framework of attacking Islam, its fundamentals, preachers, scholars and groups that propagate it.” In accordance with that, Awad described the rejection of any call for renewal as “healthy.” The answers given by the “Sahwa” professor, Sheikh Awad al Qarni, (“Sahwa” is not an insult here, as Sheikh al Qarni praised, defended and displayed a sense of belonging to the movement), are not disconnected from what is going on in Saudi Arabia in terms of controversy and activity on the juristic and popular levels. The body of the religious current is going through transformation and difficulties. Some have tried to portray these problems over the past ten years as a fight between clerics and enemies of religion whereas this is not the case.

For someone who is classified as one of the leaders of the Islamist movement to sound so similar in his general political discourse to any conventional Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood member, and to also complain about the harassment of some local hardliners and to accuse them of being ignorant, then to finally defend the categorical rejection of any juristic renewal concerning the liberation of women, this all means one thing: we accept “religiously permissible” openness if it comes from one of us or someone who resembles us from amongst the people of the “Sahwa” who could be entrusted with preserving the identity of the nation. Only in this case, the idea of renewal can be deemed lawful. However, if this idea is introduced by someone other than us, even if that other person is a senior scholar and jurist, then the idea is deemed suspicious and that person is believed to have something up his sleeve. The truth is that there is nothing up anybody’s sleeve. What we ought to do is be open to the idea of renewal anytime anywhere without talking about conspiracy theories, which have captivated the imagination of Islamists since the emergence of Hassan al Banna.

There is no explanation for this contradiction in my opinion except that the entire matter has a political dimension to it and it is not purely juristic. In his book entitled ‘Religious Movements in the Arabian Gulf,’ Bahraini intellectual Baqir al Najjar says: ‘In comparison to Salafist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys more social flexibility, whether this has to do with its position on the liberation of women or any other social issues. However, these groups can do nothing but support Salafist groups in their hardline proposals.” This observation is correct. We have seen in some instances that the Muslim Brotherhood, which presents itself as being more refined and intelligent than naïve Salafist groups, tends to take positions that are more rigid, more obstinate and far more capable of lasting than those of Salafist groups.

Observers believe that Salafist groups are less adamant than the Muslim Brotherhood about changing their positions on general issues. They attribute that to the fact that Salafists are not so immersed in politics or obsessed with the concept of international conspiracies against Islam and Muslims. Conspiracy theory is an art in political analysis that is mastered and promoted by political Islamist groups and pan-nationalist groups before that.

Generally speaking, we cannot say that Sheikh Awad al Qarni belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood; however he is definitely one of the icons of the “Sahwa” current. The term “Sahwa” is a Saudi media expression for all members of the Islamic movement in Saudi Arabia; they are not ordinary religious people as members of this movement are people with a mission and a project for change, whereas ordinary religious people are simply ordinary!

In his interview with Okaz newspaper, Awad al Qarni defends the Sahwa current, which has been exposed to severe criticism in recent years, by saying: “Icons of the Sahwa current played a significant role in raising awareness across the Islamic Ummah. They contributed effectively to restraining extremism and excessiveness which only managed to get to the minds of the youth during the period in which icons of the Sahwa came to an abrupt stop, that is, during their arrest in the mid-nineties following the war to liberate Kuwait. During that period, extremist ideologies found their way to some younger age groups. But with the return of the Sahwa icons to the scene, they served as an impregnable fortification in the face of extremism.”

Sheikh Awad al Qarni was having an epiphany whilst giving this interview. For those who don’t know, Sheikh Awad al Qarni is the author of ‘Modernism in the Balance of Islam,’ which functioned as a manifesto for members of the Sahwa Islamic movement in the same way as ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’. Sheikh al Qarni was also an active Sahwa icon among others during the Second Gulf War.

To be fair, I must say that Sheikh Awad al Qarni was so clear and confident in the manner in which he spoke about the Sahwa of the 1990s. He is also credited with being one of the best intellects and gurus of the Sahwa movement in terms of sincerely representing that current. We have not seen this level of harmony and composure in the discussions of many other icons.

I wish Sheikh Awad al Qarni would continue to show this amount of tolerance and patience in giving interviews that aim to review the cultural and political history of society and highlight the right to disagree with others. In the end, I must admit that the Sahwa movement in Saudi Arabia was considered the most significant social and intellectual current in the country for nearly four decades. It is so unfair that competent people from among its followers, such as Sheikh Awad al Qarni, do not exist in large numbers in order to defend that current.