Will social and religious reforms being undertaken by Saudi Arabia have an impact on Indian Muslims and the Muslim community around the world? This is a question that is haunting different sections of the Muslim community in different parts of the world. Diverse sections of the Muslim scholars are trying to figure out as to how and how much impact it will have on the community and what sort of changes it may have on the psyche of the 1.6 billion strong community spread across the world.
Saudi Arabia is on the course of reforms and modernization for the last few years. These are wide ranging reforms and will impact almost every part of life in due course. It is not just about allowing women to drive on Saudi roads, or not wearing face covering, it is almost all encompassing and the fact that this is happening in one of the most conservative societies, this all seems so enchanting.
While the changes and reforms have been in the making for quite sometimes, there has been a sudden spurt recently under Prince Muhammad bin Salman who is striving to not just diversify the oil dependent Saudi economy but also modernize the Saudi society that has largely kept its tribal identity intact. There are reasons to believe that the Saudi government is all set to announce penal reform so that punishments meted out for specific crimes are no longer the sole purview of judges, who are mostly clergy trained.
The most visible change on Saudi Arabian roads, particularly in bigger cities is the diminished power of religious police who wielded disproportionate power to arrest anyone in the guise of implementing the Islamic lawns. Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute was quoted by Frontline as saying that curbing the religious police’s powers of arrest was a “fundamental and foundational” change. She goes on to add that this has allowed them to take a whole different number of measures that ease up on the rather severe sort of social norms and restrictions that were in place previously. She further says that the move allowed for other changes to follow, such as easing gender segregation and allowing women a more prominent role in public life.
Eman Alhussein, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington says that the most dramatic change visible on Saudi roads is relaxed atmosphere for women. “For a long time, people had to maintain two separate lifestyles: one inside their homes where they can act normal, be whoever they want to be, and one in public. Now there is a very relaxed atmosphere in big cities like Riyadh and Jeddah” says she.
While the relaxation felt by women on Saudi roads is one thing, there is reason to believe that with fundamental changes there will be an all out transformation and moderation that may reduce religious fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has been often accused by many to harbor and spread religious extremism. It is notwithstanding the fact that the Saudi government has abhorred political Islam for a long time and has distanced itself not just from Muslim Brotherhood, but also from other extremist groups as well
Professor Muqtedar Khan, who teaches at the University of Delaware tells me that reforms are welcome and it will certainly have some impact on the Muslim societies around the world, particularly in reducing extremism. “Religious reform in Saudi Arabia is critical to reducing the religious intolerance and extremism that plagues Muslim societies. But these reforms must be organic not imposed top down. If Saudi scholars and Saudi universities change their curriculum and move away from the Salafi outlook and this brand of Islam is funded and preached from Saudi pulpits with the same vigor as was Wahhabism then yes we will see a global change. Today Saudi trained scholars and funded institutions ravage the culture of tolerance and openness across the Muslim world”.
Reforms in Saudi society may seem sudden, but this is a completely false impression. Muhammad Faour, while writing in the 'The Arab World After Desert Storm' says, "Although the political changes embodied in the three new statutes of government fall far below western and perhaps even Saudi liberal expectations, they are significant in that they represent an unprecedented effort to legitimize the coexistence of a civil, man made constitution with the godly law of Sharia in Islamic communities, a possibility that was previously rejected by the Saudi leadership. Despite official statements that the statutes do not constitute a constitution, most of their articles bear a strong resemblance to those of other Arab states, which label their statutes 'constitution'. King Fahd clergy understood the significance of the step that he was taking, as he felt compelled to dispel the fears f pious Wahhabis about the direction of social and political change in Saudi Arabia..."
When I spoke to Waris Mazhari, who teaches Islamic Studies in Delhi’s Hamdard University, he said that the changes will have far reaching impact not just in Saudi Arabia but also in places like India where Saudi Arabia enjoys great influence over masses, especially the clergy belonging to Salafi and Ahle Hadith schools of thoughts. “Certainly the reforms in Saudi Arabia will have profound impact on a large number of Muslims in the country. Saudi Arabia, due to the fact that it houses the holy places of Islam has held a special place for the Muslim community in India and any reforms are expected to have long term impact on the Muslim psyche in the country.”
There are a large number of Salafi and Ahle Hadith madrasas spread throughout the country. Many of them have been receiving Saudi largesse for the last several decades. They follow every word of the Saudi government and therefore it is expected that they will not be just impacted by the reforms in Saudi Arabia, but will do their utmost to spread the similar reforms in the very conservative Salafi followers across the country.
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Syed is a New Delhi based author and commentator. His forthcoming book 'Ulema's Role in India's Freedom Movements with Focus on Reshmi Rumal Tehrik will be out in October