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Not Wahabi hardliners but Ahle Quran group is behind MBS’ bold reforms in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been the face of bold reforms in Saudi Arabia

Veering away from Hadith and turning to the Quran under the influence of a team of moderate scholars is apparently behind the spate of reforms unleashed by Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Some Indian clerics employed by the Kingdom and those who monitor changes in theological discourse say that MBS’ new advisors are close to Ahle Quran, the group of Islamic scholars that holds that only Holy Quran is the source of divine law and that the Hadith Literature can be redundant.

In a major departure from Wahhabism, key doctrine of Saudi religious philosophy, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud ordered the establishment of an authority to scrutinise uses of the hadith — accounts of the sayings, actions or habits of the Prophet (PBUH) that are used by preachers and jurists to support teachings and edicts on all aspects of life. The body will be based in Madina and overseen by a council of senior Islamic scholars from around the world, according to the decree.

Wahhabism derives its force from hadith and presents a strict version of Islam.

In an interview with American magazine, The Atlantic, MBS stated in 2022 that great efforts are underway to document the most authentic Traditions of the Prophet (Hadith) to protect Hadith from the misuse of extremists and terrorists.

“Since 2018 onwards, almost all religious programmes on various Saudi television channels cite injunctions in the Quran while explaining laws that govern administrative and social life. Only those hadith are quoted that corroborate the message of the Quran,” a teacher at King Khalid University told India Narrative.

He explains that the Kingdom has emitted ample signals that it aims to slowly shun use of hadith for making laws in future and that only those hadith will be cited that go with the moderate version of Crown Prince’s “moderate Islam”.

“In an interview with a local Saudi newspaper, MBS quoted a passage from hadith saying that the Prophet raced with his wives and that women had a role in public life during the Prophet’s time. It was clearly to justify the Kingdom’s moves to open Saudi society for women – letting them drive, occupy senior corporate positions, staying with males in hotels, etc.,” the teacher said.

Naeem Ameen (name changed), a religious scholar working with the Culture and Information Ministry, said that the views of MBS along with clips of his interviews are sent to the various media organisations, especially TV channels, to telecast them with emphasis on following the Quran rather than hadith. “Recently, the MBS said about hadith that I am quoting verbatim – ‘You have tens of thousands of Hadith. And, you know, the massive majority, are not proven and are being used by many people as the way to justify doing what they are doing. For example, Al-Qaeda followers, ISIS followers, they are using Hadith which are very weak, not proven to be true Hadith, to propagate their ideology. So, simply put: God and the Qur’an tell us to follow the Prophet’s teachings. And at the Prophet’s time, people were writing down the Qur’an, and writing down the Prophet’s teachings, so the Prophet ordered that his teachings not be written down to make sure that the main base remains the Qur’an, so when we go to the Prophet’s teaching, we have to be very careful’. This has been translated in several languages and dispatched to a number of media outlets for circulation,” he said.

He added that the new books published in the Kingdom will embed the Quranic vision of MBS deep into the Saudi psyche.

Four different scholars based in Saudi Arabia interviewed by the India Narrative said that MBS’s reformation drive could very well be the result of influence exercised by the Quranists. “His former advisor Saud al-Qahtani wielded a lot of influence on MBS’s religious and political outlook. We never heard of Qahtani quoting hadith in public. He has been a technocrat and modernist since the very first day he joined royal services. Very likely, he persuaded MBS for religious makeover and shunning hadith in favour of the Quran,” said a scholar.

Qahtani is said to be the ringleader of killers that murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He is reportedly in house arrest since 2019.

Recent Reforms in Saudi under MBS

Saudi Arabia curbs the powers of the religious police who once patrolled public spaces, neutering their ability to impose strict rules on women’s dress or enforce bans on alcohol, music, prayer-time closures and the mixing of men and women.

Saudi government has ended a 35-year prohibition on cinemas, plans to open more than 300 movie theatres by 2030.

Saudi Arabia also lifted a decades-old ban on women driving cars.

A royal decree allows music to be played in restaurants as public entertainment flourishes around the kingdom and the ban on gender-mixing eases.

A new tourist visa regime seeks to attract holidaymakers. A modest dress code is set for visitors, ending the requirement that women wear all-covering robes. Foreign men and women are permitted to rent hotel rooms together without proving they are related.

Crown prince plans to approve a set of new draft laws designed to improve the efficiency and integrity of the kingdom’s judicial system in a step that would eventually lead to an entirely codified law.

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