What It Takes To Make Saudi Islam ‘Moderate’

Can you curb religious fundamentalism by “eliminating fake and extremist texts”?

Sigal Samuel

Saudi Arabia is going to great lengths to present itself as “moderate”—or at least, as trying to embody “a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions,” as the crown prince recently put it. Early signs suggest that the state’s rebranding efforts are working. In May, U.S. President Trump praised the Saudis as they jointly inaugurated a counterterrorism center in Riyadh, and just this week the Israeli military chief expressed unprecedented willingness to share intel with the Saudis, saying that Israel will “exchange information with moderate Arab countries.”

But how does a state associated with fundamentalism “moderate” the religion it promotes? One less-examined mechanism for the attempt is the King Salman Complex, a new center being built for the study of hadith, the reports about Muhammad’s sayings and practices that form an important source of guidance for Muslims. And it shows the limits of the “moderation” push.

The royal decree that was circulated within Saudi Arabia last month to announce the creation of the King Salman Complex was apolitical in tone. It focused on the religious nature of the new center, which will be based in the holy city of Medina “in continuation of this country’s service to Islamic law and its sources.” By the time the story made it to the English-language press, however, the center was deeply political. The Ministry of Culture and Information had issued a statement saying that this “unprecedented initiative” would have scholars reauthenticate hadith “with the purpose of eliminating fake and extremist texts and any texts that contradict the teachings of Islam and justify the committing of crimes, murders, and terrorist acts which have no place in Islam, the religion of peace.” It was this narrative that Western outlets like The Guardian reiterated.

“The original story was ‘King Salman is a pious king who donated to the religious establishment,’” Joel Blecher, a hadith scholar at George Washington University, told me. “I get the sense that the Ministry of Culture and Information saw this story come across their transom and said, ‘We could promote this as a counterterrorism story.’” (Saudi officials I contacted declined to comment for this article.)

Both narratives serve the royal family nicely, Blecher said. Within Saudi Arabia, establishing the King Salman Complex is good PR: The family derives a lot of legitimacy from the religious scholars, so why not look for new ways to spend money on them? It’s also good—and much-needed—PR in the West: Saudis are often accused of exporting a fundamentalist brand of Islam known as Wahhabism—a term that has taken on pejorative connotations in the Westand they’ve been keen to prove (to Trump as well as to potential international investors) that they’re a strong ally in the fight against terrorism.

Why has the counterterrorism narrative about the King Salman Complex gained traction? “Quite a few people in the West think Islam has a problem. So either we get rid of Islam, or we deconstruct Islam and remold it in another image,” said H.A. Hellyer, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a scholar of religion and politics. “This [narrative] gives hope that we’ll change Islam into something we in the West like … and we don’t need to then ask difficult questions about why we have such good relationships with autocrats in many Muslim-majority countries.”

Assuming that the hadith center does aim to curb extremism, though, it’s not clear how it could succeed. Hadith authentication involves examining a report’s train of transmission (“X heard this from Y who heard it from Z who heard it from Muhammad”) and making sure the sources are trustworthy. “I would be very skeptical of the claim that this is going to root out extremism, because ultimately it’s not the act of authentication [that matters]—because there are plenty of hadith that are authentic that would very easily lend support to militant groups,” said Blecher.

The target audience is probably not extremists themselves (who could find support for their beliefs in almost any text) but those who are at risk of being radicalized. “It’s very possible that what will happen at this center is that there’ll be conservative Salafis—purists who often castigate the majority of Muslims for practices and ideas that historically haven’t been problematictaking arguments that radical extremists have made and deconstructing them,” said Hellyer. “When groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS argue that you have to revolt against the government, they’ll deconstruct it and say that’s not true and this is why.”

But just as the government relies on the scholars for legitimacy, the scholars rely on the government for their salaries. So, Hellyer added, “They’ll deconstruct arguments that are in conflict with the present needs of the Saudi state. But are they going to deconstruct all of the sectarian stuff? For example, will they now admit that Sunnis can legitimately be Sufis and not be described as deviants? I don’t think so.”

There’s also no indication that they’re going to undertake the intellectual overhaul needed to disentangle Saudi Islam from the extremist offshoot of Salafism that stems from the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. That theologian’s teachings date back to the 1700s, meaning that the root of the problem is nearly 300 years old—not 30 years old, as the crown prince said when he linked it to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The prince’s statement was troublesome, and not just because the arithmetic was off; that he located the issue in such recent history suggests he’s not interested in a major foundational shake-up.

If Saudi Arabia tackles the problem only superficially, there’s no reason to expect it will effect deep change. Worse, it could backfire. “The unintended effect could be that this undermines Saudi religious credibility,” said Annelle Sheline, a doctoral student at George Washington University who studies Arab monarchies’ attempts to use state control of religious institutions to reduce extremism.

Saudi Arabia has so successfully promoted a particular version of Islam that if it tries to change that now, it risks empowering fringe voices who will claim to be sticking up for the old version. “You’re going to have extremists who are very willing to trumpet the fact that Saudi Arabia isn’t adhering to the real Islam, they’re just in the pockets of the West, which is already a pretty widespread view,” Sheline told me. “People are very sensitive to any perceived interference, so any efforts to ‘moderate’ the religion immediately smell very fishy.”

If a new hadith center can’t really disentangle Islam in Saudi Arabia from extremist Salafism, what can get the job done?

“The longstanding American view is that the answer is democracy,” Sheline said. On this view, if the Saudi government were not authoritarian—if devout individuals were able to express their own views without being constrained—there would be a greater plurality of religious discourses. Some would be moderate and some would be extremist, but hopefully “this would allow people to see [the extremists] for what they are.” (However, seeing extremists for what they are is different from not generating them. An emerging democracy like Tunisia may have a greater plurality of religious discourses, but it was still one of the top exporters of fighters to ISIS—with Saudi Arabia also at the top, per a Soufan Center study.)

For his part, Hellyer says the real solution lies in deep intellectual and theological reform. “It would require a recognition that the purist Salafi heritage that comes from Ibn Abd al-Wahhab—which is the underpinning of the Saudi religious establishment—is not normative, that it’s a minority approach within the Sunni universe,” he argued. “And that would require a reexamination as to whether Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s message is intrinsically the best way to go. … If they take that to pieces, then they will have accomplished a genuine counterreformation of Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s message.”