Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) of Saudi Arabia was on a state visit to India from 9th to 11th September 2023. On 9th and 10th September 2023, he attended the G20 Summit in Delhi, while on Monday, 11th September, he engaged in meetings and ceremonial events with Indian leaders including President Droupadi Murmu and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
For some time now, Mohammed Bin Salman’s efforts to modernize Saudi Arabia have sparked extensive discussions in the Indian subcontinent. These discussions have also been a source of frustration for Islamists in the region. They find it challenging to accept the fact that the ruler of Islam’s holy land is ‘deviating’ from strict religious interpretations currently prevalent in the region, in various Islamic schools of thought dominating a large Muslim population.
Mohammed Bin Salman’s transformation of Saudi Arabia is notable. He’s slowly shifting the country from its traditional, religiously conservative stance to a more progressive and economically prosperous nation in the 21st century. This transformation is catching global attention. However, it must be noted that the changes he is bringing about in the oil kingdom are not absolute religious reforms but more of an altered presentation of a state in order to survive the changes in the modern-day world economy.
The changes in Saudi Arabia include social and economic reforms, such as granting women the right to drive, diversifying the economy away from oil dependence, and encouraging foreign investments. These moves have ushered in a wave of opportunities and a sense of modernity.
However, this shift has also faced opposition, particularly from hardline religious elements who resist these changes and consider them a departure from the strict interpretations of their faith. It therefore becomes necessary to revisit how Saudi Arabia has historically been, how it was before Mohammed Bin Salman took over, and how it is transforming under his leadership.
Brief history of Saudi Arabia at a glance
For millennia, the Arabian Peninsula, including what is now modern-day Saudi Arabia, was primarily inhabited by nomadic tribes engaged in trade, herding, and small-scale agriculture. These desert dwellers lived in close-knit communities, adhering to a tribal social structure and pagan worshipping practices just like in the Indian subcontinent.
In the early 7th century, a seminal event occurred in this region when the Prophet Muhammad received revelations from Allah, leading to the birth of Islam in 610 CE. Over the next century, the Islamic faith spread rapidly across the Arabian Peninsula, and through conquests, it extended its influence across the Middle East and North Africa. This expansion essentially involved conflicts and bloodshed at every stage.
Throughout history, the Arabian Peninsula remained a significant crossroads for trade, culture, religion, and the conflicts regarding them all. The region’s strategic location at the nexus of Africa, Asia, and Europe made it a focal point for various civilizations and empires.
However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the Arab land experienced a colossal transformative shift with the discovery of vast oil reserves. The newfound oil wealth fueled unprecedented economic development, slight modernization, and urbanization in Saudi Arabia and neighboring Gulf states, bringing prosperity and global significance to the once-traditional desert tribes.
Today, Saudi Arabia stands as an emerging player on the world stage as Mohammed Bin Salman is heading this country which has seen a medieval history that lasted so long that it began its wrap-up when half of the world had already advanced ahead in modern times.
Who is Mohammed Bin Salman?
Born on August 31, 1985, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman is the son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his third wife, Fahda bint Falah Al Hithlain. He belongs to the ruling Al Saud dynasty which has ruled Saudi Arabia since 1932. He studied law at King Saud University. Following graduation, he served as his father’s advisor.
In 2015, he became the defense minister and deputy crown prince, eventually rising to the position of the crown prince in 2017 after the removal of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, who was King Salman’s nephew.
How was Saudi Arabia just before the MBS took over?
Before the ascent of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia adhered to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, resulting in numerous restrictions on citizens’ daily lives. Women were prohibited from driving, working in certain professions, or traveling without a male guardian. Public displays of affection were strictly prohibited, and non-Muslims couldn’t openly practice their religions. Music and entertainment were banned, and media and freedom of expression were tightly controlled by the government.
The religious police, known as the Mutaween, had the authority to arrest and detain those who violated these laws. These stringent social and religious rules created a challenging living environment for many, particularly women who had limited rights. Foreigners often faced suspicion and discrimination in the country.
The rise of Mohammed Bin Salman, his quick actions, and his friendship with PM Modi irritates Islamists in India
In January 2015, following the death of King Abdullah, Salman bin Abdulaziz ascended to the throne of Saudi Arabia. He promptly named Mohammed as the defence minister. In 2016, the Vision 2030 plan was launched, outlining Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s (MBS) vision for Saudi Arabia’s future. It aimed to diversify the economy, reduce oil dependence, and foster social change.
In June 2017, Mohammed Bin Salman was appointed crown prince. In October 2017, a significant shift occurred as the ban on music concerts was lifted, signaling a new era of cultural vibrancy in Saudi Arabia. All this was happening when Maulanas in India were arguing on TV debates that music, cinema, etc. is haram in Islam.
In a country that had been under strict religious influence for centuries, such steps were bound to face immediate opposition from many strata of society. Mohammed Bin Salman crushed that opposition when Islamists in India were busy criticising Narendra Modi and his government over the perceived attacks on free speech and expression and Islamoapologetic self-styled journalists were championing their moral stands on the freedom of press and media.
November 2017 saw Mohammed Bin Salman take bold steps to consolidate his power. He initiated campaign that led to the arrest and detention of prominent Saudi figures, including members of the royal family and influential businessmen. This move was part of his strategy to eliminate political rivals and reshape the Saudi political landscape. The crown prince also took hard steps against corruption.
In April 2018, another milestone was reached as movie theatres were opened in the kingdom, offering Saudis access to films and cultural experiences that had long been absent. June 2018 marked historic moment with the lifting of the ban on women driving. This decision granted women newfound mobility and a pinch of autonomy. However, this improved status of women in Saudi Arabia is still a way short of gender equality.
This revolutionary modernization of the Arab land was taking place when Islamists in India and the subcontinent were busy appropriating regressive practices like Burkha and Hijab as the choice of Muslim females whereas, in reality, scores of religious texts available online were asserting that it is anything but a choice.
One of the most controversial actions of MBS occurred in October 2018 when Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi had been critical of the Saudi government, and his death sparked international outrage and condemnation. This was just 15 months before Islamists in India were busy instigating riots against Hindus in the guise of protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act.
These fanatics were given cover fire by ‘journalists’ like Arfa Khanum Sherwani, Rana Ayyub and others, none of whom have actually experienced any of the so-called persecution and injustice they claim the Modi government has been inflicting on them. In fact, these critiques of the Modi government are enjoying the utmost freedom of criticizing the democratically elected government of a clear majority despite their views being diametrically opposite to that of the government they hate the most.
Mohammed Bin Salman’s friendship with Narendra Modi and thus irritates this clout the most. Notably, UAE and Saudi Arabia are important stakeholders in the India Middle-East Europe Economic Corridor which was agreed upon by 8 countries in the recent G20 Summit held in Delhi. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was conferred Saudi Arabia’s highest civilian honor, King Abdulaziz Sash in 2016. The honor is named after the founder of the modern Saudi state, Abdulaziz Al Saud. This happened within one year of Mohammed Bin Salman becoming the defense minister of Saidi Arabia.
Narendra Modi received this award in 2016 when the ‘intolerance’ debate in India initiated after Barack Obama’s visit in 2015 was at its peak. Islamists in India were accusing the Modi government of religious intolerance and animosity towards Muslims in India. And one day, they saw the rulers of the holy land of Islam honoring the person they hated the most.
Mohammed Bin Salman and his interpretation of Islam is a reason why Islamists in India worry. What led Mohammed Bin Salman to make this drastic change in the holy land of Islam? It is a blend of a futuristic approach towards the economy of Saudi Arabia and his own interpretation of Islam. Let us discuss it one by one.
Modernizing the economy and opening up the country as a global business hub is necessary, that oil is not going to last forever
To explore what Mohammed Bin Salman thinks of the oil economy, we have to revisit what he says in one of his interviews from April 2021. In this interview, he said, “The amount of income and growth that oil has realized is much more than what we needed at that time in the thirties and forties. So, the volume of the surplus of income and economic growth was much more than we were aspiring for by hundreds of times. This has created the impression that oil will ensure all of our needs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Considering the rising population, oil has barely been able to cover the needs and the type of living we have been accustomed to since the 60s, 70s, 80s, and after. If we were to proceed in the same manner and in the light of the increased population number this will have quite an impact in 20 years on the standard of living, we’ve become accustomed to for about 50 years.”
He further said, “There are numerous opportunities in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in different sectors other than just the oil sector. In mining, in tourism services, in logistics, in investment, etc. I believe that was the main emphasis for Vision 2030 in order to eliminate the challenges that we face and to exploit the untapped opportunities.”
Harsh Saudi laws are changed to attract foreign money, global investors, and talents from across the world
The Saudi Crown Prince is very well aware of the changing world and the changes in the laws needed to attract global players to the Gulf country. He underlined the necessity of modern laws in this interview. He said, “One can’t go and reinvent the wheel. The world follows clear laws that regulate the lives of people. Our role is to make sure all the laws passed in Saudi Arabia reflect the following: One, that they do not violate the Quran and the Sunnah; the Quran being our constitution, that they do not contradict our interests, that they preserve the security and interests of citizens, and that they help in the development and prosperity of the country. So, laws are passed based on this procedure according to international conventions.”
He added, “If you want tourists to come here… If you aim to attract 100 million tourists to create three million jobs, and you say that you are following something new other than common laws and international norms, then those tourists will not come to you. If you want to double foreign investments, as we have done, from five million to 17 million, and you tell investors to invest in your country that is running on an unknown system that their lawyers do not know how to navigate nor know how those regulations are applied and enforced, then those investors will just cut their losses and not invest all together. When you want to attract certain talents and human resources to work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and say that you have a new invention for enacting laws, no one will come to you. So, you will have to adopt the laws that are internationally recognized based on your constitution, the Quran, and your interests and objectives and based on the preservation of the security and interests of the citizens and with the development and prosperity of the country in mind.”
Mohammed Bin Salman and the authenticity of Hadiths
Quran, Hadiths, and Sharia form the whole of the Islamic religious literature. Various Fatwas are issued by different Islamic scholars across the world in light of these scriptures. Quran is the direct word of Allah – the Islamic God, and is the supreme text. Hadiths are a collection of stories and incidents from the life of Prophet Muhammad justifying various verses in the Quran. Sharia is the law implemented in an Islamic state in accordance with Quran and Hadiths.
There are nearly 7000 Hadiths in Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim versions of Hadiths. These two are most widely followed in the Islamic world. Other versions have a variable number of Hadiths like 3000 or 4000.
Now, these Hadiths are classified according to various criteria. One of the criteria to ascertain the veracity of these Hadiths is the number of story-tellers over generations after the death of the Prophet Muhammad who agree upon the core crux of the said Hadiths. If there are multiple such accounts agreeing in general with the story, those Hadiths are called Mutawatir Hadiths. The number of people agreeing with these stories does not change much over generations.
If the number of people telling the stories changes over generations significantly, then those Hadiths are called Ahad Hadiths. Ahad Hadith is one which is narrated by people whose number does not reach that of the Mutawatir case. Ahad is further classified into Gharib, Aziz and Mashhur.
A hadith is termed Gharib (scarce, strange) when only a single reporter is found relating it at some stage. If only two reporters are found to narrate the hadith, it is termed Aziz. A hadith that is reported by more than two reporters is known as Mashhur.
Mohammed Bin Salman has apparently rejected all Hadiths except Mutawatir Hadiths. The number of Mutawatir Hadiths is 113 to 324 according to various schools of thought in Islam. Most of these Hadiths are related to the mode of worship and core belief only.
Discarding other Hadiths pulls away the very basis of Sharia legislation thereby making some room to accommodate foreign people in Saudi Arabia with laws competent to other modern laws in various countries across the world. Saudi Arabia thus does not have to rely on medieval legislation anymore.
What did Mohammed Bin Salman say about Hadiths and Sharia?
Mohammed Bin Salman said, “I cannot enforce a Sharia punishment without a clear Quranic stipulation or an explicit stipulation from the Sunnah. When I talk about an explicit stipulation from the Sunnah, most hadith writers classify hadith based on their own typology, like Bukhari, Muslim, and others, into correct hadith or weak hadith. But there is another classification which is more important, namely whether a tradition or hadith has been narrated by many people or a single narrator, and this is a main reference for jurisprudence for deducing regulations, Sharia-wise.”
He further said, “So, when we talk about a Mutawatir hadith, i.e., narrated and handed down from one group to another group to another starting with the Prophet, PBUH, these hadiths are very few in number, but they are strong in terms of veracity, and their interpretations vary based on the time and place they were revealed and how the hadith was understood at the time. But when we talk about Ahad hadiths, which are handed down from a single person to another starting with the Prophet PBUH, or from a group to a group to a single individual then another group etc. starting with the Prophet PBUH, so that there’s another individual in the chain. This is called ahad hadith. And this is broken down into many classifications, such as correct, weak, or good hadith. And this type of hadith, the ahad, is not as compelling as the mutawatir hadiths.”
He added, “While a ‘khabar’ is a hadith handed down from a single person to another single person etc. to an unknown source, starting with the Prophet PBUH, or from a group to a group, then a person to another person, and so on, starting with the Prophet PBUH, so that there’s a missing link. This represents the majority of hadith and this type of hadith is unreliable whatsoever, in the sense that its veracity is not established and that it isn’t binding. And in the biography of the Prophet PBUH, when the hadith was first recorded the Prophet PBUH ordered those records to be burnt and forbade the writing of hadith, and that should apply even more so to ‘Khabar’ hadiths so that people are not obliged to implement them from a Sharia perspective since they also might be used as ammunition to dispute God Almighty’s power to produce teachings that are fit for every time and place.”
He concluded this topic by saying, “Hence, the government, where Sharia is concerned, has to implement Quran regulations and teachings in mutawater hadiths, and to look into the veracity and reliability of ahad hadiths, and to disregard “khabar” hadiths entirely, unless if a clear benefit is derived from it for humanity. So, there should be no punishment related to a religious matter except when there is a clear Quranic stipulation, and this penalty will be implemented based on the way that the Prophet PBUH applied it.”
MBS cited Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulwahhab to deny aligning with any particular sect including the Wahhabi Sect
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said in his interview to Al Arabiya, “When we commit ourselves to following a certain school or scholar, this means we are deifying human beings. God Almighty did not put a barrier between himself and his people. He revealed the Quran and the Prophet PBUH implemented it and the space for interpretation is open permanently.”
He added, “If Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdulwahhab were with us today and he found us committed blindly to his texts and closing our minds to interpretation and jurisprudence while deifying and sanctifying him he would be the first to object to this. There are no fixed schools of thought and there is no infallible person. We should engage in continuous interpretation of Quranic texts and the same goes for the sunnah of the Prophet PBUH, and all fatwas should be based on the time, place, and mindset in which they are issued.”
It is notable that this Wahhabi Islam was systematically spread in the Indian subcontinent as Saudi Arabia put in heavy oil money to fund the Islamic preachers through various mosques, madrasas, etc. There are many reports suggesting how the nature of Islam in the Indian subcontinent went on to become more puritan, especially from the 1970s onwards.
Why Islamists in the Indian subcontinent are not so happy with Mohammed Bin Salman?
This stand by the ruler of the holy land of Islam is a big blow to Islamists in the guise of Islamic scholars in the Indian subcontinent who quote Islamic scriptures at their comfort to use the religion as a tool to spread Islamic terrorism, to demand Sharia law in India, to demand personal law in India, to exploit Muslim women in India over various issues like Nikah, Halala, Talaq, Burkha, Hijab, to support Islamic terrorists in the name of Ummah, to run Madrasas preaching all these things, to sexually exploit children in those madrasas, to propel various kinds of jihads ranging from land jihad to love jihad.
For these Islamist hardliners, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is anything but a Muslim. They consider him as detrimental to Islam as any ex-Muslim. This is the reason Islamic hardliners and many Islamist organizations have been objecting to MBS and have even vocally criticized Saudi Arabia’s modernization.
Growing atheism in the Middle East
While many surveys on various issues of the people living in the Middle East are there, the most interesting among them is about the percentage of people adhering to the religion. This number has significantly declined in most of the Middle Eastern countries in the past few years. Islam is the prominent religion in these countries. Apostasy is an offense in Islam, punishable by death. Many countries in the Middle East have practiced Islamic legislation for centuries. However, in 2021, the Middle East Forum reported that atheism among Muslims is spreading like wildfire.
During the spring of 2011, a sweeping wave of revolution swept across the Arab world. Public squares were occupied by thousands of young individuals, all united in their quest for increased freedoms. This concept of freedom covered a wide canvas ranging from politics to governance also encompassing religious beliefs. Atheism gradually made its own place in the Arab world. For instance, out of the 75,000 mosques in Iran, 50,000 have been shuttered, reflecting a decline in the number of people who attend.
“The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins is widely popular in Saudi Arabia, with three million downloads in a country where apostasy can carry the death penalty. While it’s challenging to determine the exact number of atheists in Saudi Arabia, a 2012 WIN/Gallup International poll revealed that 5% identified as “convinced atheists,” the same percentage as in the United States, and 19% described themselves as “non-religious.”
While this percentage may seem relatively low, it holds significance within a nation where punishments for expressing disbelief, whether real or perceived, range from physical punishments to extended periods of imprisonment, and even execution, though the latter is rarely enforced. Typically, those found guilty of apostasy can anticipate lengthy incarceration.
However, as Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman extends his global initiatives, atheism remains one of the Arab nation’s most enduring taboos even today. Nevertheless, an increasing number of Saudi citizens are questioning the religious authorities as atheism continues to gain traction throughout the Middle East.
In conclusion, the transformation of Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is a profound shift from its conservative past to a more modern and economically diversified nation. This transformation, marked by social and economic reforms, has sparked both global attention and internal opposition, particularly from those who resist these changes as deviations from strict religious interpretations.
While the Crown Prince’s efforts have been met with skepticism from some quarters, his vision for a more open and prosperous Saudi Arabia has brought about significant changes. These reforms reflect a pragmatic approach to governance, aligning Saudi Arabia with global norms and attracting international investors and talents. Notably, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s stance on religious texts and his willingness to reevaluate Hadiths have raised eyebrows among traditionalists. However, this approach represents a significant departure from the rigid interpretations that have long defined Saudi Arabia’s legal and religious landscape.
While challenges persist and opposition remains, it is evident that Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Mohammed Bin Salman is undergoing a profound transformation, with implications that reach far beyond its borders. As atheism gains ground in the Middle East, the evolving Saudi society remains a focal point in the region, challenging traditional religious norms while embracing a more modern and diversified future.
As the oil kingdom evaluates and upgrades its relationship with religion, the changes will also affect the larger Muslim population in the Indian subcontinent, albeit slowly. As the growing Wahabism in the region grew and spread from Saudi Arabia, the ‘modern’ kingdom will also influence the choices of young Muslims in a larger geographical area in the future.