Reflections on religious moderation in Saudi Arabia

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

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Saudi Arabia has unveiled its new developmental phase via several paths that run in parallel with the government’s war on extremism and spreading of a culture of moderation and coexistence among various sects and religions.

A few days ago, Prince Mohammed bin Salman received a delegation of senior evangelical Christians from the United States headed by Joel Rosenberg and former US Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, in addition to heads of other evangelical American organizations. This step paves the way for the road taken by Saudi Arabia via plans for dialogue among various religions and forums which are being held under the auspices of the Muslim World League. The league is carving new concepts of coexistence in an unusual new language for Muslims in the world - language of regeneration and reform from within religious institutions in accordance with the interests of Muslim societies and the preservation of human brotherhood.

There have been exceptional religious personalities but they lacked the condition of institutional work and were abandoned by political patronage so their project failed, as was the case with great distinguished imams, hence their legacy diminished

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

Moderate voice

In this context, the Prince Khalid Al-Faisal Moderation Award has been granted this year to Secretary General of the Muslim World League Sheikh Mohammed Al-Issa. Any observer can distinguish the difference between his rhetoric and the rest of the tautology presented in some official fiqh groups and circles. In addition to his fiqh skills, he is known for his moderate religious discourse, which sets him apart from the inane disputes between the Muslim Brotherhood, Sururism, Al-Jamiyah, Ahl al-Hadeeth, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and other Islamic groups who are clashing with one another.

His rhetoric is not the outcome of a crisis like the case is with other symbols of these currents and who employ different fiqh and analysis without reflection or a keen eye. This dilemma has dominated much of the fiqh and sharia writings during the last half century in Saudi Arabia specifically and in the Islamic world in general.

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As I have been passionate about following up on the fiqh and sharia discourse and the areas of religious renewal since my days at the Faculty of Sharia, it has become clear that the emergence of personalities from within the religious institutions who take it upon themselves to renew the fiqh concepts and reform them, restore what has been corrupted by conflicts among the different movements and apply the purposes of sharia, its concepts and conclusions while easing useless tautological burdens is a difficult task. However, after following Al-Issa and his works in this important institution, I feel very optimistic, especially since the project of moderation is sponsored by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the promoter of tolerance and the architect of moderation.

Curricula of coexistence

In an interview with Al-Issa, he said: "Religion is one of the important keys to finding a solution, since it holds a crucial part in much of the general sentiment. The religious rhetoric has great influence along with educational curricula in the world." He clarified that he is “calling for strengthening the curricula to enhance the idea of coexistence, and if the Islamic world is asked for more ways to promote the values of coexistence, peace and respect for the other, we accept it.

We actually call for strengthening it more and more. Muslims lack the requisite amount of cultural and civilized communication. We’re not just talking about the educational studies but also about the process of dialogue for understanding, rapprochement and humanitarian cooperation and correcting the misconceptions, so that we can overcome the situations of apprehension and fear, and then accept each other’s convictions. Convictions can only be influenced with convictions.”

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Any reformation in religious thought can only be done under two conditions. First, the work must be institutionalized, not be solely individual or partisan, but within a civil institution concerned with religious affairs, as is the case with the League.
The second is that this religious reformation must be done under political patronage and a formal cover to alleviate societal tension against any different religious concepts, ancient fiqh opinions or legitimate space that has been robbed and dimmed.

Institutionalized reforms

This task of understanding sharia, its doctrinal research, the principles of rhetoric, fiqh and its origins and interpretation, the Quran and proof and hadith with its sources and modifications can take several years, and the dysfunction that lasted for centuries cannot be solved within a short period of a few days.

There have been exceptional religious personalities but they lacked the condition of institutional work and were abandoned by political patronage so their project failed, as was the case with great distinguished imams, hence their legacy diminished. The voices of the crowd and the ignorant may have come against them and distorted their projects and academic circles.

The bet now is on religious reformation within the capable institutions that have the authority and jurisdiction, and I am confident that the rhetoric that is presented in Saudi Arabia is the locus of moderation desired in the Islamic world.

This article is also available in Arabic.


Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Alarabiya.net, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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