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From hardline to progressive Islam—how Saudi Arabia is changing under MBS

Saudi Arabia is undergoing rapid reforms under stewardship of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

The Ahl-e-Hadith compound in Abul Fazal Enclave locality of Delhi wears a barren look. Its mosque organises five daily prayers. Its activities cease here. Few years back, it was built to serve as the headquarters of the Ahl-e-Hadith with allegedly Saudi funding through World Muslim League (WML), or Rabita al-Alami al-Islami.

The Ahl-e-Hadith group in India has been the main peddler of Wahhabism, or the orthodox doctrine, that the Saudi monarchical regime has been following and spreading till very recently.

The literature produced by several Ahl-e Hadith publishing houses in India helps promote a version of Islam that is almost identical to that of the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, and hence one that had fitted in with the interests of both the Saudi Wahhabi ulema as well as the Saudi State. One of its major publications has been the Urdu translations of the compendia of fatwas of leading Saudi Wahhabi ulema.

But fresh thinking has come with winds of change in Saudi regime’s outlook to curb orthodox Islam within their lands and its spread abroad after 9/11 attacks and the monarchy’s own desire to modernise the kingdom.

However, the history of Saudi funding of their brand of Islam through organisations like Rabita al-Alami al-Islami and the Dar ul-Ifta wal Dawat ul-Irshad deserves a revisit as WML’s moderate secretary general Dr Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa is slated to start his important tour to India.

Saudi Funding to Individuals and Organisations in India

In the past, Saudi Arabia emerged as a significant sponsor of Islamic institutions internationally, including in India, only in the 1970s after youths of Shia Iran rose in revolution to overthrow the Shah and the Saudi monarchs saw a menacing threat at home.

There has been no record of exact Saudi funding to Islamic organisations and individuals in India, but it has been too obvious to speculate that certain organisations and Islamic figures have been benefiting from Saudi largesse.

The largest beneficiary of this largesse is believed to be the Ahl-e Hadith, although the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Deobandis are also said to have benefited to some extent. The Barelvis and the Shias, both of whom regard Wahhabism as wholly heretical, have received little or no financial support at all from Saudi sources.

Saudi financial aid majorly went to Islamic organisations to build mosques, madrasas, and publishing houses. To a lesser extent, funds were directed to Muslim organisations to establish schools and hospitals in Muslim areas and to provide scholarships to poor Muslim students.

Some Indian Muslims working in various capacities in Saudi Arabia have also been sending money to finance Islamic institutions, which are mostly located in the towns and villages where their families live.

Two Carriers: Ahl-e-Hadith and Deobandis

Since the crux of the official Saudi creed, Wahhabism, is based on hadiths, the Ahl-e-Hadith group has been its natural ally. In fact, both are almost the same. Thus, the Saudi government saw Ahl-e-Hadith as the carriers of their brand of Islamism worldwide, most notably in the Indian Subcontinent.

Many books written by Indian Ahl-e Hadith scholars describe the “immense” contributions of the current rulers of Saudi Arabia to the “Islamic cause,” inevitably culminating in the claim that Saudi Arabia under its current masters is the only “true “Islamic state” in today’s world. It is also important to call upon God to bless the King of Saudi Arabia and pray for his continued reign.

The Ahl-e Hadith are closer in doctrinal terms to the Deobandis than to any other Indian Sunni group. The two however also maintain sharp differences, with Deobandis holding an intellectual edge.

In general, the Deobandis seem to have maintained the somewhat ambivalent attitude of their elders (salaf) towards the Ahl-e Hadith and the Wahhabis until at least the late 1970s, when the situation began to change due to new funding and job opportunities in Saudi Arabia. During the Afghan War against the Soviet Union, the Saudis realised that the Deobandis were much more influential and had a much greater presence than the Ahl-e Hadith in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a result, much of Saudi Arabia’s funds began to flow to Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan to train guerrillas armed with a jihadist passion against the Russians. A shared commitment to Sharia-centered Islam made such aid acceptable to both sides.

But the ideological terrain has been changing rapidly especially after the advent of Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince.

As the world changed following the 9/11 attacks, the WML too changed its outlook and focused more on “interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and peaceful coexistence with global religious authorities”.

A Delhi-based religious leader who has kept track of the WML activities in the Muslim world has been quoted as saying that the League is now in the league of Islamic moderation and freeing itself of conservative Saudi brand of Islamism. “We do not hear that the League is promoting hardline groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and their spin-offs in the Indian Subcontinent. Otherwise in the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was a trend,” he says.

He added that Dr al-Issa’s visit and his interaction with Muslim academia and religious leadership in entirely a new milieu and mindset will shift the sands in the right direction. “His message will matter and how it is received by Indians will matter more,” he said.

MBS and His Vision 2030

Dr al-Issa is originally an expert of comparative law and not Islamic Studies as may be believed. He was Minister of Justice in the Saudi Cabinet. He was selected to spearhead the WML specifically to put MBS’ “makeover” of the religious landscape of the kingdom. MBS’ plan suggests concentrating the constitution and laws on the Quran, eliminating many hadiths (sayings of the Prophet). He speaks of the need for a current “interpretation” of the Quran. A real change in ideological direction that goes beyond the Wahhabism propagated by Riyadh to date. No more stoning, scourging, killing apostates and homosexuals, and many other reforms.

One institution that has said labbayka (I will stick to obeying you again and again) to MBS’ Vision 2030 is the WML under Dr al-Issa’s leadership. Dr al-Issa has been interpreting the doctrines and structures of the yet-conservative Islam to suit requirements of modern age.

Also Read: Why visit of World Muslim League head to India may have far reaching consequences