One of the few Islamic scholars who continue to oppose al Qaeda and confront the organization using Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence, literally:
understanding and acquisition knowledge). ) Is Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Bin Nasser Al Obeikan, born and raised in Saudi Arabia? A writer, a lecturer, and a speaker, he is a prominent figure who actively defends Islam against the fundamental and militant ideologies of groups such as al Qaeda who have been gaining popularity in Saudi Arabia in the last few years. Going against many others, Sheikh Al Obeikan rejects Al Qaeda’s claims of engaging in Jihad (struggle for Islam) in Iraq, against Coalition troops and civilians.
Interestingly, Al Obeikan describes himself as a Salafi, a traditionalist who advocates a return to a Sharia (The body of Islamic law based on the Quran and the sunna, the body of customs and practices based on Prophet Mohammed’s words and deeds found in the Quran and the Hadiths) minded orthodox, using the Quran and the Hadiths (the sayings and deeds of the Prophet as recorded by his followers), or even a Wahabi (a puritanical Saudi Islamic sect founded by Muhammad ibn-Abd-al-Wahab in the 18th century)
who opposed, during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Saudi Arabia’s
reliance on foreign troops to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, for religious and political reasons. He is the first to admit his position, at the time, was a mistake and is quick to blame others who realize they were not for not publicly admitting the erroneous beliefs.
In a lengthy conversation with Asharq Al Awsat, Sheikh Al Obeikan candidly discusses the much-needed reforms to the Saudi judiciary, his readiness to confront Bin Laden and traces the rise of radical political Islam in the Gulf Kingdom.
Q: What is your opinion of the current procedures for train Saudi judges given that, in other countries, a judge is required to undergo 36 hours of training every year to remain in his post?
A: Training judges for their posts is important and will soon be implemented.
Whereas in the past, we had limited and insufficient training, under the newly organized judiciary, established by royal decree, judges will now have to undertake an extensive training period before they can join the Higher Institute for the judiciary. The Institute itself will be overhauled to ensure the best preparation for judges.
Q: Some observers’ call for judges to receive training on how to implement the rulings of the Fiqh Assemblies (assemblies of Islamic Jurisprudence) in order to give appropriate decisions. What is your opinion?
A: I believe the official movement toward the formulation of legal articles is even more beneficial in this respect I am aware that some judgments are to be classified into legal articles after consideration of the evidence available and the interest of all parties. This new arrangement will be overseen by a committee and will be open to all schools of Islamic jurisprudence (The schools of Islamic thought or jurisprudence, the four most important of which were founded by Malik, Abu Hanifa, Al-Shafie and Ahmad ibn Hanbal).
Q: What about “Taazir”, which are subjectively, estimated penalties, applied when there is no specific legal text or opinion to direct the judge? Do you agree with those who complain of the presence of significant variation between edicts due to the lack of set criteria?
A: Let me assure you that, in the upcoming judicial reform, there will be an arrangement regarding Taazir penalties.
Q: What do you think of the number of judicial inspectors in the Kingdom, currently 19?
A: I can’t give you a specific number but I believe it is important to increase the number of inspectors but, more importantly, inspectors need to be successful judges in their won right so they could, in turn, hold other judges accountable.
Q: The current number of judges in Saudi Arabia is estimated at 600. Is that, in your opinion, sufficient to cover the needs of the Kingdom’s citizens?
A: Certainly not! There is a plan to increase the number to 2000, so that all judicial posts would be filled. A computer network will then link all the judges in Saudi Arabia under a newly formed Judicial Inspection Authority, which will be responsible for training and inspections across the Kingdom.
Q: Are judges’ performances evaluated under the existing system?
A: In theory, yes. However, in practice, appraisals do not often occur. I hope this will be remedied in the near future.
Q: Some accuse judges of being rude and harsh in their dealings with Saudis in the courts. Do you agree?
A: Let us not generalize. Some judges might fit your description while others are very polite. This is why, I believe, it is important to train judges and instruct them to deal with people cordially.
Q: Moving on from the discussion on judiciary reform, the Ulama (religious scholars) of the Wahabi school of jurisprudence are, sometimes, accused of focusing too much on the science of religion. Yet, with the establishment of the Islamic University in Medina in 1961, and the influx of foreign Ulamas (for example, Sheikh Nasser El Deen Al Albany), there has been a sudden interest in studying the Hadith. Do you think that this renewed interest in Hadith has been in the expense of the study of jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia?
A: No, I don’t think so. This change in interest has, however, greatly influenced the new generation of religious students who, inspired by some Sheikhs, are no longer following the Wahabi tradition but, instead, focus almost exclusively on the sunnah. This new generation believes that religious scholars are wrong and refuse to follow them. They also consider that individuals are able to fully grasp all the meanings in the Sunnah and arrive at judicial verdicts on their own! Of course, things are never so straightforward.
If one were to look at some schools of old jurists, such as Imam Mohey El Deen Al Nawawy, Al Hafez Bin Hajar, and Inb Taymeyah, one would find that each of these scholars combined the study of Hadith and Islamic jurisprudence. It is only because they did not put Fiqh aside in their scholarly pursuit that they were able to give appropriate religious edicts.
Today, however, we find ourselves in Saudi Arabia, in a situation where many are more interested in studying the sayings of the Prophet, separating the authentic hadiths from the fake, thereby neglecting Islamic jurisprudence.
Past scholars, however, have already accomplished this. It is of no real use to memorize and recite different Hadiths without accompanying this knowledge with jurisprudence. Many people can memorize and recite but a select few are able to truly understand Islamic texts. Indeed, Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal once remarked that students of the Hadith lacked any real knowledge of Islamic law and jurisprudence.
Q: Could this trend of moving away from studying jurisprudence explain why the religious figures that inspire militant Islamic groups come from a non- judicial background such as engineering or medicine?
A: Yes, I would say so. One can hardly find an Islamic scholar amongst all the militant groups! Most of the members of such groups concentrate on the Hadith and lack any knowledge of Islamic jurisprudence. I believe this has lead to many problems, one of which is the spread of ideology of Takfir (practice of declaring that an individual or group previously Muslim is, in fact, a non believer) to justify violence.
Q: Let us then assume that militant Islamists are poor in Islamic jurisprudence. What about the charge that even the religious scholars of Najd are themselves not very well versed in Fiqh or even Hadith? Do you remember the controversy, a few years ago, when Sheikh al Albany said that Imam Mohamed Bin Abdul Wahab, the founder of the Wahabi sect, wasn’t knowledgeable in Hadith but, rather, an Islamic scholar of the Hanbali tradition?
A: I should start off by saying that Imam Bin Abdul Wahab was a far superior scholar to Sheikh Al Albany. Imam Abdul Wahab and his students were the leaders of an Islamic Dawaa (call) who specialized in Islamic jurisprudence. We have inherited from them a large number of edicts that are arranged in several volumes. Some even became famous for their vast knowledge of jurisprudence. I think that the charge some are accusing them of is totally false.
Q: Are you then, Sheikh Al Obeikan, calling for a greater emphasis on thought and understanding rather than an emphasis on the study of Hadith as a solution to the crisis currently gripping religious education in the Kingdom?
A: The words of the Hadith will never be lost. They are found in books, CDs and computers! With a simple click to a mouse, one is able to browse hundreds of Hadiths and judge their veracity according the criteria of Isnad (or backing by searching for the chain of authority). The more important issue is where to find a scholar who is bale to give a learned opinion on a contemporary matter whilst remaining faithful to these texts. True knowledge and understanding can’t be found in books or in computers. Instead, it is to be found in the minds of educated men. This is why I believe that the study if Islamic jurisprudence is crucial.
Q: You have been known for your direct criticism, or even attack, of the thoughts of Al Qaeda and similar groups, whereas other religious figures have not been so vocal. Some might even argue that this silence is a direct result of tacitly approving Bin Laden’s discourse, or, the consequence of a lack of religious arguments to disprove these beliefs. What is your reaction?
A: I say to those who believe in Al Qaeda and its ideology of Takfir that they are being superficial and simplistic. I have challenged such people on many occasions through the media and by other means. I’ve even sat and debated with such sympathizers at my home and in the mosque. None was ever able to convince me. I, Sheikh Al Obeikan, am even ready to debate with Bin Laden himself!
Q: Why is the religious establishment not engaged in debates with those belonging to al Qaeda and their followers? Wouldn’t Saudi Arabia benefit from a debate on complex religious issues such as Al Walaa wa Al Baraa (loyalty to Islam and disloyalty to its opponents), the role of Islamic law in everyday life, the Kingdom’s membership in international organizations such as the UN?
Why, when such a debate has already occurred in Egypt, is it absent from Saudi Arabia? Do you believe that a comprehensive debate is needed to replace the diversity of opinions currently publicized after each terrorist incident?
A: Indeed, what you propose is very much needed. I have discussed such a scheme with many sheikhs and scholars and we all agree that a national debate is a must. I have also invited followers of Al Qaeda to engage in a debate with me, but so far, I have received no replies.
Q: If were to be invited to a public debate with Bin Laden, would you accept?
A: Yes! I am ready to engage in a debate with Bin Laden and others such as Abu Mohammed Al Makdissi in public. I have already said so on air, on the “Al Hewar Al Ghaib” television program. During the program, I received a phone call from Hamed Al Aaly a religious scholar in Kuwait who is now imprisoned for supporting terrorism. We had a debate, which was written about in Kuwaiti newspapers.
Q: Sheikh Faris Al Showeil, one of the members of al Qaeda’s religious committee, asked, before his arrest, to discuss with Sheikh Sifr Al Hewaly, whether the Saudi Arabia really has a Muslim government. The latter declined.
If you were invited to discuss such matters, would you accept?
A: I am ready to debate at any time with anyone who defends Al Qaeda or justifies its actions.
Q: Nowadays, Sheikh Al Obeikan, you are mostly known as a prominent advocate for judicial reform as well a leading Sheikh confronting militant Muslim ideologies and groups. However, if we were to go back a decade, to the aftermath of the liberation of Kuwait, some might argue that you were not the same person. Then, for example, you were known for your activities in the “Jama’ Al Jawhara” mosque in Riyadh, which served as a meeting point for those condemning the government’s policies. What has changed since then?
A: I do not think I have changed at all. What has happened is that I have changed my style and how I deal with different situations. Whereas, in the past, I expressed my opinion in public, I now believe that public denunciations are a mistake, both on a religious and a rational level. I continue, however, to give advice to and discuss matters with those in power, in private.
Q: What are, if any, the mistakes that have accompanied the Sahwa (religious revival) across Saudi Arabia, in your opinion?
A: This religious revival started before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the second Gulf war that ensued. At the time, it was still a harmless phenomenon that was non- political and confined to individual acts such as listening to tapes of the Quran at home or in the car. The figures we tend to associate with this revival were, I believe, its product.
Q: Do you think, therefore, that the movement started before the actions of Jahiman Al Oteiby in 1979, when a group of Islamic militants, led by al-Oteibi, took over the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and held hundreds of pilgrims’
hostage? The government surrounded the mosque and, after a bloody showdown Oteibi surrendered and was later executed.
A: No, I believe it started in the years following the confrontation in Mecca.
The revival manifested itself in people praying more and listening to tapes of the Quran. There were no lectures or religious assemblies at the time, and no figures making speeches and giving lectures about current affairs.
Q: When then did the revival truly take off?
A: The problem started, in my opinion, when some religious figures started moving into the public realm, giving lectures, and producing tapes with their ideas. They found many recipients and, in some instances, these figures abused this increase interest in religion and politicized this revival. This is what, later on, lead to the current crisis.
Q: Do you agree with the use of the term Sahwa to describe this increase in religious sentiment?
A: I think religious beliefs are present in all of us. Of course, change has occurred in Saudi society and more people are now observing basic religious duties. I do not think there is a specific reason such a change has occur.
Instead, I think God has guided people to become more observant of Islam.
No one can claim the credit for this revival; the religious scholars and sheikhs have always been here, the Friday prayers have been held every week. I think the only explanation is that religious sentiment goes through periods were it is important in the minds of Saudi society and times when it is less so. Given that this revival started with people listening more to recitations of the Quran, and not as others might think, with speeches and lectures, the Kingdom would have been better off without the latter.
Q: Has religious sentiment been, therefore, politicized in Saudi Arabia?
A: Yes, that is what’s happened! If the increase in religiosity had remained private, our society nowadays would be much more balanced.
Q: If you are saying that the true revival has been highjacked by politics, what do you say to the leaders of this Sahwa?
A: I would like to repeat that I do not believe in those self-styled leaders or symbols of the revival. I believe that the initial Sahwa created them. Let me add, however, that these figures you ask me about are the ones to blame for corrupting society’s desire to do the right thing and transforming it into an attack on the Kingdom’s rulers, convincing them that those in power should be fought, confronted, and eliminated. They are the ones who have been giving lectures and making speeches in the last few years, many influenced by the Kharijite thought (The Khawarij are a Muslim sect who rejected the authority of the fourth caliph, Ali Bin Abi Talib. In modern times, Islamic thinkers have sometimes branded terrorist organizations which emphasis Takfir as neo Kharijites).
Q: Could you explain your last statement a bit further?
A: These figures took pieces of the old Khawarij sect, perfectly summed up in the thoughts and behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been a great influence on the latest militant Islamic groups. Some of these groups derive their thoughts from the Khawarij who advocated the belief of challenging their rulers because they abused their wealth and power and did not rule according to the Quran. These contemporary groups make the same claims under what they consider is “Hakimiyyah” or the rule of Allah.
Q: How can one call for reform in Saudi Arabia but avoid falling into the trap you have described, namely denouncing the rulers and rebelling against those in power?
A: It is necessary for wealth and power to be justly distributed in our society.
One can achieve this by making demands in a peaceful way, as the Prophet Mohammed taught us. Those who govern Saudi Arabia are now, more than ever, paying close attention to the interest of the country and the needs of its citizens. The decision to forge ahead with reform has already been taken at the highest levels and much implemented since the liberation of Kuwait, for example, the establishment of a Shura Council and the announcement of the Basic Laws.
Q: How is one to reconcile your enthusiasm for reform with your image as a traditionalist, Sheikh Al Obeikan?
A: Some might even tell you that I am a Wahabi! To all these people, I have one important thing to say and that is that political and administrative reform is possible without having to resort to the ways of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Some might even think that Salafis (traditionalist) are not reform minded. In fact, traditionalists have, in the past, called for reform. Figures of this latest religious revival are, in reality, calling for corruption, strife, destruction, and killing, as the Khawarij did many centuries ago.
Q: Why, in your opinion, did Sheikh Mohammed Bin Othaymayn denounce the Islamist figures that wrote the “Memorandum of Advice”, if he is not against the principle of reform?
A: I am also against this memorandum. I adopted the earlier “Letter of Demands” because it was concerned with religious matters of public interest.
There is, however, a huge difference between the two.
For example, the Memorandum calls for the Kingdom to open its borders to all Muslims. But how can such a situation be contemplated? Each country has its own economy and its own regulations. There are, evidently, considerable differences between the various Muslim countries in educational, cultural, and social matters. If, in the situation we find ourselves in, the limited number of foreigners has had a great impact on Saudi society, how can we possibly ask to open our doors to everyone?
Many Muslims would like to settle in the Kingdom, whether to be close to the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, or to benefit form the economic riches of the country. If we were to open our doors to every Muslim, Saudi Arabia will be destroyed and its resources plundered. If Muslims want to come and use our resources, why don’t we use theirs as well?
We shouldn’t compare both documents. Many religious scholars and sheikhs approved the first “Letter of Demands” across Saudi Arabia, in addition to Sheikh Bin Baz. Assembly of Senior Ulemas, however, rejected “The Memorandum of Advice”. While the latter represents the Salafi tradition and its demands for reform, the Memorandum embodies the politically active religious current.
Q: Does all this criticism indicate that you reject the outcome of the current Islamic revival in Saudi Arabia?
A: Perhaps it is best, in order to answer your question, to look at the results of this revival. Are Saudi Arabians in a better condition as a result of the tapes in circulation inciting political hostility? I believe we were in a better situation before the emergence of such tapes.
Q: How can you condemn the usage of tape cassettes when some sheikh uses them as well?
A: I did not mean to condemn all usage of such tapes. I do, however, condemn all the tapes that call for political incitement and hostility, such as the one entitled “a message to the security officer” or the tape entitled “You will remember in the future what I am now telling you”, which featured speculation on the developments of the war in Kuwait, none of which turned out to be true. I believe this tape, which wanted to challenge the edicts of Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz has been harmful. Its makers should admit their mistakes, like I have done in the past when I stopped voicing my opposition in public.
Q: Many of the theoretical advocates of Al Qaeda, such as Yousef Al Airy and Faris Al Showail, have been quoting the religious edicts and opinions of prominent sheikhs on issues of Takfir and Jihad, implying that they are merely repeating the beliefs of Saudi religious leaders. What is your opinion on such practices?
A: These new militant leaders are the product of a revival that calls for political incitement and discord. They are willing to do anything that will serve their cause.
Q: How then, can Saudi Arabia protect its younger generation from succumbing to such ideology?
A: I would like to see the creation of a Supreme Committee to confront this Takfiri ideology, which will undertake a comprehensive and in depth study on how to combat revivalist ideology. We can no longer shy away from confronting this problem. Can you believe that some sheikhs, instead of delivering lectures on terrorism, speak about the importance of obeying parental obedience as a religious duty?
Q: Are you implying that some sheikhs might be encouraging revivalist ideology that incites violence?
A: Indeed. We need to address them and find out the reasons they are shying away from confrontation. They should fear for the future of their country, its safety, and security, in addition to the future of Islam. I would, at this point, to commend the national media for its efforts to rid us of militant ideologies.
Q: There are some who accuse a sizeable segment of schoolteachers of being sympathetic to the ideology of Al Qaeda. Do you agree?
A: Not only does this segment populate our schools, but it also exists in our universities with some who believe in the ideology of Takfir even lecturing on the subject and publicizing it.