Saudi Arabia: Friend Or Foe?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 2

Much is being said and written about today’s Islam and its role in international relations. “Islamic extremism” is understood as political extremism that uses Islam as an ideological basis. “Fundamentalism,” “Wahhabism,” “political Islam,” and “militant Islam” are often viewed as synonyms. Those who try to assess the place of Islam in world politics mostly look at it as a factor that poses dangers to a great number of states, Russia and the United States among them. Mounting terrorist acts worldwide only strengthen this opinion.

The challenge presented by this radicalization of Islam can be resolved only through a consistent state policy toward the religion that aims at disseminating knowledge about true Islam and supporting those values and aims of Sharia–Islamic law–that have nothing in common with extremism. An ideological alternative to extremist ideas within Islam is badly needed; this is a job for the state.

The issue of real or fictional Saudi involvement in supporting Islamic extremism is also controversial. Following the May 2003 terrorist attacks in that country, some American analysts renewed their demands for declaring “total war” against “militant Islam.” They also demanded that Saudi Arabia be punished for its encouragement of Islamic extremism. But such calls oversimplify the issue of the Saudi state’s ideology. Those who describe the kingdom as an extremist or “Wahhabi” regime insist that the state is actively planting its own interpretation of Islam in different parts of the world. It is thereby demonstrating, they say, an intolerant attitude to followers of other religions and even to Muslims who share different ideas about Islam, as well as supporting Islamic extremists who threaten the national interests of many countries.

In Saudi Arabia I personally met people who followed Islamic tradition to the letter. I also met some who interpreted this tradition in an opposite way. Saudi leaders have officially removed themselves from positions described as “Wahhabi.” Political practice, rather than theoretical constructs, is the best proof of this. If Saudi Arabia followed the strictest Islamic prescriptions, it would have been unable to pursue its present economic and international policies. Indeed, the state and the majority of its citizens are living according to a different interpretation; even the declared principles formally based on tradition are being modified.

For example, a fatwa issued by a respected Saudi theologian forbids a Muslim from shaking hands with the unfaithful (by whom the document means Christians and Jews).[1] Yet I shook hands with the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the late Bin Baz, as well as with the former minister for Islamic affairs, Abdullah al-Turki, who is now secretary general of the Mecca-based Muslim World League, which is one of the most influential international Islamic organizations. Nobody reproaches such men for violating the Islamic norms that they must preserve as Muslims and as high officials. The same applies to the Saudi minister of oil or the Saudi ambassador to Moscow. Contrary to a literal interpretation of a well-known hadith, these men both shave their beards.

A rational approach to tradition has penetrated even those Saudi organizations that are charged with the task of protecting the purity of Islam. Here is what the Grand Mufti of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Ahal Sheikh (who belongs to the family founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab), had to say when In answering the question, “To what extent can Islam tap the latest scientific discoveries?” “Everything that can be used in secular life and that does not contradict our religion can be accepted; the main thing is these achievements should not go against Islamic principles or the religion.”[2] The Grand Mufti thus left open to interpretation which of the latest scientific achievements could be accepted by Islam as those either directly corresponding or at least not contradicting it. Of these two possibilities, most Islamic trends seem to prefer the former.

Similarly, out of Islam’s vast heritage, including that part involving the outstanding theologian and legal scholar Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1327), who is especially loved by the so-called Wahhabis, Muslims tend to select those ideas that confirm what they think of Islam and Sharia. Some of their ideological leaders sharply criticize this narrow view, however. One of the greatest Muslim legal scholars, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (1292-1350), wrote: “As for the fanatics, they can place any problem upside down. When they turn to the Sunnah they borrow only what corresponds to their pronouncements and contrive tricks to push away evidence that does not suit them. If they come across similarly convincing or even less convincing evidence that supports their positions, they immediately accept it and use it as an argument against their opponents.”[3] This can hardly be better said. Finally, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) himself stated: “Some of the religious-minded people stop banned practices and they are right in doing this. But in their zeal to do this they drive brothers to quarrels; and this is wrong.”[4]

There are two opposite approaches to Sharia in Saudi Arabia (as in any other Muslim country): A dogmatic one oriented toward a limited interpretation of the hadiths–the traditions of the righteous ancestors (ahl al-hadith)–and a rational one concentrating on a creative approach to Sharia’s meanings and aims (ahl al-ray). Orthodox thinkers emphasize an aggressive interpretation of jihad; the moderate thinkers lean toward ijtihad, (a rational quest for answers to questions for which the Koran, Sunnah or the hadiths provide no answers). The Islamic Jurisprudence Academy of the Muslim World League confirmed that the “gates of ijtihad are open” and emphasized that contemporary problems should be addressed in the context of contemporary conditions and the Sharia’s general aims.[5]

This approach opens up broader horizons for international cooperation aimed against terrorism. Such cooperation should be pursued by the West side-by-side with those Islamic states that have already been the victims of terrorists. Here I have in mind cooperation with Muslim states in an effort to strengthen genuine Islamic values as an alternative to extremism and terrorism under the banner of Islam. This is an evil that threatens not only the West, but also the Islamic world. The United States and the West in general–including Russia–should join forces with moderate Islamic regimes and authoritative centers of enlightened Islamic thought. The Islamic factor should become an important part of the West’s relationships with the Muslim world to improve security and protect national interests. These states can, and should, ideologically disarm the Muslim radicals. The remedy for extremism and terrorism under Islamic banners should be sought through Islam itself.

1. Fatwas of the Collegium of the Senior Ulema, Part 1, Riyadh, 1990, pp. 95-96 (in Arabic).

2. Ash-Shark at-Awsat, 23 January 2000.

3. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Instruction for Those Who Speak in the Name of the Lord of the Worlds, Vol. 1, Beirut [s. a.], p. 76 (in Arabic).

4. Important Advice about Three Problems, Riyadh, 1995, p. 50 (in Arabic).

5. For the text of the decision, see: Journal of Contemporary Research of Fiqh (Riyadh), Vol. 1, No. 3, 1985, pp. 208-210 (in Arabic).