Riyadh, Asharq Al-Awsat- The cultural, social, and religious scene in Saudi Arabia is witnessing “symbolic” gestures advocating dialogue and sectarian tolerance. The latest such gesture was a visit by Shiite Sheikh Muhammad al-Saffar to Al-Qasim. He had been invited by the governor of Unayzah in Al-Qasim Province to attend Unayzah’s First Cultural and Heritage Festival. For two days and in the presence of numerous media personnel, government officials, and intellectuals Al-Qasim, a province famous for its salafi character, played host to the first “Shiite turban.” The occasion was reminiscent of the time when the well-known cleric and native son of Al-Qasim Sheikh Salman al-Awdah rode in the same car with Sheikh Hassan al-Saffar following a session of national dialogue.
In the same context several Saudi writers and Islamic intellectuals belonging to various Islamic schools of thought have come together in a book that they called “Doctrinal Dialogue in Saudi Arabia.” It sets a precedent. The book was written in response to a call for a dialogue among the adherents of the different Islamic Schools in Saudi Arabia that Sheikh Abdullah Bin-Manimade during an interview with Asharq al-Awsat on 17 March 2006. The call was promptly supported by Sheikh Salih al-Sadlan, faculty member at Imam Muhammad Bin-Saud Islamic University during an interview of his own with Asharq al-Awsat.
The books explores the importance of the role of senior clerics and Islamic intellectuals and writers in promoting an appropriate climate for inter-doctrinal interaction and breaking the isolating barriers among the various sects and schools of Islamic thought in the country as a way of attaining peaceful coexistence. This can only occur when the theory of “eradicating” the opposing ideology is buried and forgotten.
The book aims to encourage communication and dialogue about the various Islamic doctrines under the motto “we will agree on some issues and be tolerant with each other regarding the issues on which we differ.” The book, which was edited by the writer Muhammad Al-Hafiz, contains 10 articles by clerics and writers belonging to different sects, including Dr Muhammad Bin-Salih al-Ali, the writer Abdullah Farraj al-Sharif, Muhammad al-Mahmud, Adnan al-Zahrani, Fahd al-Usari, Zayd al-Fadil, Muhammad al-Dahim, Ali Al Mustanir, and Sheikh Musa Bu Khamsin.
All the authors endorsed the rule of “doctrinal dialogue and its foundations” as an embodiment of common citizenship and the rights and obligations that it confers and entails. They illustrated the vast dimensions of citizenship as the vessel in which all Saudi cultural and sectarian affiliations are fused despite the various features of the country’s religious spectrum that range from the Twelve Shiites in the east, the Isma’ilis in the southwest, the adherents of Ibn-Hanbal’s doctrine in the center, and the followers of the other Sunni schools, the Shafi’is, Malikis, and Hanafis in the rest of the country. Some Sunni citizens pursue a Sufi method in the West and in some areas in the east. There are in addition several other intellectual schools scattered all around the country that are rooted in liberalism, philosophical ideologies, or Arab nationalism.
The writer Muhammad al-Hafiz, editor of “The Doctrinal Dialogue in Saudi Arabia: Various Views” told Asharq al-Awsat that one of the causes of the alienation among the sects in Saudi Arabia is the type of current religious discourse that is expounded by clerics of all sects. He added that any attempt to bring the views of various individuals and segments of Saudi society closer to each other will definitely influence this religious discourse. He added that positive dialogue and interaction among followers of the various sects and doctrines will help to produce a unifying and interactive religious discourse. This will counteract the current lack of communication and coolness of relations among the clerics of different sects and schools of Islamic jurisprudence which has kept a distance among the followers of the various sects.
He explained that despite the differences in religious views and convictions, interaction among the clerics will enable Saudi society to produce an interactive religious discourse that will promote coexistence within the same homeland.
Al-Hafiz stressed that any initiative that encourages rapprochement among the different segments of Saudi society will produce a positive psychological atmosphere among all Saudi people. He said that he looks forward to the time when the current individual efforts that are made by some clerics and some social notables, who are motivated by communal and emotional tendencies, will turn into a practical step towards an exchange of responsible views and greater prospects for dialogue over all the issues that concern Saudi society.
Commenting on the use of the term “doctrinal dialogue” in the media and at cultural and social forums, Al-Hafiz said that the lack of cultural efforts to properly analyze this term was the reason why the book was written. He described it as “an attempt to put forward different views about the concept of doctrinal dialogue in Saudi Arabia” that represent 10 different schools of Islamic jurisprudence and various provinces.
Al-Hafiz explained that when more of these initiatives are made and follow-up steps are taken, this will create a state of easier coexistence among the sects in Saudi Arabia. Asked if there are no fears that Shariaa laws will become chaotic if all the various schools of Islam are taken into account, he said that there is no reason to be afraid. He said that “coexistence among the sects that is committed to national unity will promote greater political and social stability and will strengthen the domestic fronton a foundation of unity and social stability.”
Sheikh Muhammad al-Saffar, the visitor from Al-Qatif to Al-Qasim, commented on the issue. After returning from Unayzah where he attended a festival in response to an invitation from its governor, he told Asharq al-Awsat that King Abdullah Bin-Abdulaziz had already sponsored an important aspect of national dialogue by encouraging rapprochement among the sects in Saudi Arabia and noted that the king’s recent speech to the Shura Council focused on this issue. Additionally Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Suds, imam of Mecca’s Great Mosque, also focused on the same subject.
Sheikh Al-Saffar pointed out that recent positive initiatives have reduced the impact of hostile and emotional religious edicts made by some clerics. He said that the recent positive steps blunted the impact of these fatwas.
Al-Saffar said that the book “Doctrinal Dialogue in Saudi Arabia”, authored as it was by a group of illustrious religious figures, who all have important status, will seriously contribute to the growth of a culture of dialogue and encourage all the sects to work together on projects that will serve the homeland. He added that a positive and calm atmosphere will persuade Muslim youths that the Islamic religion does not favor infighting and domestic conflict.
Sheikh Al-Saffar called for more private and social initiatives to break the ice among the sects. He stressed the important role that the media can play in this respect and said he is betting on cooperation and rapprochement among moderate and tolerant people from all the sects. He expressed hope that communication and dialogue will continue among all Saudi provinces and that popular initiatives will back official initiatives in the furtherance of national unity.
Sheikh Sami al-Majid, a mosque imam in Riyadh and professor at Imam Muhammad Bin-Saud Islamic University, called for adopting polite dialogue with persons or groups who have opposing views. He said: We should not engage in dialogue as if one side is always right and the other is always wrong.
Al-Majid pointed out that the required “doctrinal dialogue “should focus on discussing with the other sects issues of mutual interest including humanitarian subjects and Shariaa principles. He said that these subjects constitute a good beginning for a dialogue. He added that even when the debating groups disagree on certain points of Shariaa; this should not interrupt the dialogue or affect the polite way in which it is conducted.
Sheikh Al-Majid noted that certain factors should be taken into account in trying to promote a successful dialogue among the Muslim sects at a time when the Arab region is rife with political tensions that are based on sectarian fanaticism. He said that the important thing is to train people from their early years in the rules of polite debate. He said: “We are not concerned with what the other side believes on a personal level as long as it does not affect what is happening on the ground.”
He noted that the prophet advocated respect for human rights and adherence to the rules of polite dialogue even when you debate someone who follows a different sect or even a different religion.
Al-Majid said that all segments of society should promote the doctrinal dialogue initiative including clerics, writers, and intellectuals. Everyone can contribute on the basis of his own responsibility. He said that the people must avoid isolating themselves into different groups and create private and narrow cantons in the same homeland. He called for the creation of a culture that promotes positive relations with persons belonging to other religious sects and who have different intellectual habits. He added that this culture must be made clear to the various segments of society and its role in strengthening political and social stability in the country. He said that it is this idea on which the books’ 10 authors focused in the various sections they wrote.
The writer of the introduction said: “Positive relations among the followers of the various religious schools are not a ready-made recipe. They cannot become a reality by a word here or a speech there. They need the development of a special culture and a deep, strategic, and clear vision which will help us bypass current negative attitudes and move beyond historical facts and our contemporary conditions and all the disturbances that have characterized them.”
Meanwhile Muhammad al-Mahmud, another writer on Islamic affairs declared: “Our previous understanding of diversity and differences was wrong or at least incomplete. We did not try to learn from the experiences of others. We did not produce a method that would suit our various differences, which in the final count all go back to a large collection of creedal principles that underlined the nation’s unity and its firm behavioral values, values that identified the nation.”
Al-Mahmud added that it is not possible to deny the existence of diversity in the Middle East. Similarly the local Saudi scene is not different from this general condition. He said: “Despite our attempts to generalize and to propagate a single school of religion, the results have been contrary to our expectations to a degree that had not been foreseen by hard-line ideologues who tried to propagate their own school of thought and abolish all the others without realizing how dangerous this was to civic unity.”
Fahd al-Usari, a Shiite Islamic researcher from Medina, commented on Sheikh Bin-Mani’s call for doctrinal dialogue, which he made through Asharq al-Awsat. He stated that during his participation in the first national dialogue conference, he invited Sheikh Rabi al-Madkhali to a dialogue between the Sunnis and Shiites. Sheikh Hasan al-Saffar heard about this and called on the ulema to take the initiative and promote such a dialogue. Al-Usari noted that similar calls were made by Dr Abdulaziz al-Tuwayjiri, Sheikh Hasan al-Nimr, Sheikh Hashim al-Salman, Muhammad Alawi Maliki, and Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al Obeikan.
The lawyer Adnan al-Zahrani expressed this view: “Any idea that you may have does not become a Shariaa-based reason to shut the mouths of other people who do not share your idea. It does not give you the right to punish them or eliminate them. Ideas can only be faced by ideas.”
For his part Ali Al Mustanir wrote the following in his article in the book “Doctrinal Dialogue in Saudi Arabia”: “The time has come for dialogue and for recognizing diversity. Acknowledgment of diversity will give us greater strength and spare us a hard-line religious discourse that would only produce divisions and disagreements.”
Let the call for dialogue among the various schools of Islam remains open. Let the clerics, intellectuals, and Islamic writers present more initiatives so that we can abolish the phenomenon of “ideological inquisition” and install a culture of dialogue and a plurality of views.