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Saudi Arabia: MBS's comments on extremism and Islamic laws cause stir

Activists interpret crown prince's comments in interview as justifying 'killing dissidents', while others criticise his understanding of religious texts
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during an interview with the state-owned Rotana TV on 27 April 2021 (AFP)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's lengthy interview on state television earlier this week has already drawn headlines, around his rhetoric against "religious extremists" and the interpretation of religious texts.

During the 90-minute interview on Tuesday with state-owned Rotana TV, the de-facto Saudi ruler said he sought "good and special" relations with arch-rivals Iran, after reported secret talks were held this month. 

He also hinted at the sale of one percent of the state oil company Saudi Aramco to a major global company, believed to be from China. 

But it was his comments on religion, in particular, that have caused a stir among activists and social media users.

'Extremists to face full force of law'

The crown prince, often referred to by his initials MBS, spoke at length about the issue of religious extremism, and how it should be dealt with by the kingdom. 

"Extremism in all things is wrong, and our Prophet Muhammad talked in one of his hadiths about a day when extremists will surface and he ordered them killed when they do so," he said.

He went on to quote hadiths - recorded narrations of the sayings and actions of the prophet - which stated that nations had perished due to extremism in their religion. 

The hadith which MBS cited does not emphasise or condone the killing of extremists, instead it states: "Beware of exaggeration (extremism) in religion, for those who came before you were ruined by exaggeration in religion."

"Being an extremist in anything, whether in religion or our culture or our Arabhood, is a serious matter based on our prophet's teachings, life experience and from the history we read," MBS said.

He said that Saudi Arabia in particular had been a target for extremism and terrorism due to it being the location of Islam’s holiest sites, and that the problem had intensified between the 1950s and 70s, at a time of "socialist and communist projects" in the region.

"These people should not be representing our religion, nor our divine principles in any way, shape or form," MBS said. 

"Any person that adopts an extremist approach, even if he was not a terrorist, is a criminal and will face the full force of the law."

'Systematic approach of killing dissidents'

The crown prince's comments on extremism were widely criticised on social media, and interpreted as a direct threat to dissidents and opposition figures. 

Human rights researcher Abdullah Aloudh described the rhetoric as "a systematic approach of killing dissidents". The activist's father, renowned reformist scholar Salman al-Odah, has been imprisoned in the kingdom since 2017.

Journalist Ghadda Oueiss noted that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed by a Saudi hit squad at the Istanbul consulate in 2018, was previously referred to by the kingdom as an “enemy of the state”. 

"Is this an admission that he killed the 'extremist' Jamal Khashoggi?" Oueiss asked of MBS.

Several social media users claimed that it was in fact the crown prince who was an extremist, citing the imprisonment of activists and scholars. 

Translation: Hints from Bin Salman of a new religion, where he classifies who is an extremist and who is not. There is no need for irony. The world has not seen an extremist like you, Bin Salman, whether it's from personal opponents like Khashoggi and Al Odah and [jailed economist Essam] al-Zamil, who you took your revenge on, or a state like Qatar, which you cut off children from getting milk during Ramadan. So what extremism do you speak of?

Some users took the opportunity to reshare a ruling made by a member of the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars, just three weeks before Khashoggi’s murder, which stated that those who disobeyed rulers deserved to be killed. 

Activist Turki Shalhoub noted that MBS’s comments came just days after the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, a Saudi religious authority, had republished a decree necessitating the killing of spies. The decree stated that spies colluding with “enemies” must be killed “even if he is Muslim”, because it "spreads corruption on the ground". 

Shalhoub said he feared that there were plans “to commit major crimes in the coming days”, based on the justifications being “marketed". 

The 35-year-old prince has previously been accused of purporting to crack down on extremist clerics, while instead focusing his attention on reformist preachers.

Hadith comments criticised 

The crown prince also used the interview to touch on issues relating to Islamic jurisprudence. 

“Our constitution is the Quran, has been, still is, and will continue to be so for ever,” he stated.

He went on to say that punishment as it pertained to Sharia (Islamic law) could only be enforced with clear stipulation from the Quran or “explicit stipulation” from the Sunnah (customs and practice) as informed by the sayings of the prophet.

With regards to the latter, he drew a distinction between different types of hadith, based on the strength of veracity. 

MBS said that the government would implement Quranic regulations and teachings based on Mutawatir hadith (sayings of the prophet reported by a significant number of narrators), while needing to look into the reliability of Ahad hadiths (sayings reported by a single source). He described the latter as “not as compelling” as the former. 

The interpretation drew criticism online. 

Translation: In his speech, bin Salman opened the door to whoever wants to attack or question Al Bukhari and Al Muslim and the rest of those who narrated hadiths. This opens another door to reactions to jurisprudence rulings that were built on those hadiths. The paranoia is so much, to the extent that he thinks he is capable of revolutionising the religion of God

“What [MBS] mentioned about the Ahad hadith and not invoking it, is not the saying of any of the people of Islam,” wrote Kuwaiti preacher Dr Hakim al-Mutairi, a professor of hadith interpretation. “They were unanimously agreed on the necessity to act on the authentic hadith of the Ahad,” he added, citing several sources. 

Many users claimed that the crown prince's invoking of the prophet's words with regards to killing extremists was in direct contradiction to his views on interpreting hadith. 

“Ironically, he quotes a hadith often used by fundamentalists,” wrote journalist Reem Abdellatif, adding that many of the prophet's quotes were not easily verifiable. 

Shalhoub said that the crown prince “attacked the Ahad hadiths, then he cited one of them”. 

Wahhab 'irrelevant' in modern Saudi Arabia

MBS's comments on scholar and theologian Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab also sparked controversy.

In the mid-18th century, Wahhab formed an alliance with the emir of Dariyyah, Muhammad bin Saud, which helped bring about the establishment of the first Saudi state. The alliance and power-sharing arrangement between the two families has continued since. Wahhab's interpretation of Islam has been referred to, usually pejoratively, as Wahhabism.

"When we commit ourselves to follow a certain school or scholar, this means we are deifying human beings," the crown prince claimed during the televised discussion. 

“God did not put a barrier between himself and the people. He revealed the Quran and the prophet implemented it, and the space for interpretation is open permanently.” 

He said that if Wahhab had been alive now, he would be the first to object to people “committed blindly to his texts” and closing their minds to interpretation and jurisprudence.

“We should engage in continuous interpretation of Quranic texts,” he said. “All fatwas should be based on the time, place and mindset in which they are issued.” 

One Twitter user reacted by stating that a “contemporary constitution, written by humans for humans, is an important matter in preserving gains and development” and that “religious constitutions [were] no longer able to offer solutions under the idea of a modern state”.

Academic and Middle East Eye columnist Madawi al-Rasheed wrote earlier this week that MBS had dismissed Wahhab as an “irrelevant figure in the new Saudi Arabia” during the interview. 

She claimed that the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance had reached an “unprecedented low” after MBS aide Turki Al-Sheikh, a grandson of the Wahhabi preacher who served under Saudi Arabia’s founder Ibn Saud, was appointed to run the entertainment industry. 

“Having been the pillars of Saudi radical religious interpretations for over two centuries, the Al-Sheikh are now faced with two options; either perish or become the pillars of social liberalisation,” Rasheed said. 

In response to a question about apprehensions from some conversative quarters regarding entertainment coming to the kingdom as part of Vision 2030, the crown prince said: “If your identity cannot withstand the diversity of the world, it means your identity is weak and you need to do without it.” 

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.